1. One true Number One pitcher started in Game Five.
I'm not upset at C.J. Wilson. Far from it. He's a tremendous big league starting pitcher, poised to hit it big as a free agent this winter and deservedly so, and he's a brilliant Number Two if not a solid 1A, just behind the Verlander-Kershaw-Halladay-Lee-Felix-Lincecum-Weaver group that may contain three or four others. There's nothing wrong with that, especially considering where Wilson has come from as a big league pitcher, and you can win (96 times, in fact, or 102 times and counting, depending on how you look at it) with a guy like Wilson leading your rotation.
But he's not a classic Number One, even though the relatively thin state of this winter's pitching market will mean he'll get paid like one, and given how he has taken his game to a new level just about every year in Texas, I'm not ruling out that he can put himself in that highest echelon of all one of these days.
We saw Justin Verlander reach back for something extra several times in Game Five. Yes, he's probably the best there is in the game, so to compare Wilson or anyone else to him one-to-one is an unfair match. But that aspect of Wilson's game is sometimes elusive, and he struggled at times Thursday to put hitters away. He did manage to strike five Tigers out in six innings, but just two swinging (Austin Jackson in both cases) and in fact he got Detroit to swing at and miss only seven of his 109 pitches.
And it wasn't as if Wilson was missing the plate all night (he threw only 10 balls to the first nine batters and walked only two hitters overall), but he often missed his spots. Detroit may have gotten lucky with a ball that bounced off of third base, but the Tigers' other five extra-base hits, as well as their two singles, were struck hard. On the night, Detroit slashed Wilson to the tune of .320/.370/.800, lowering his 2011 record (regular season and playoffs) against the three teams that earned the right to play past 162 to 2-2, 4.33 in eight starts.
Three Tigers took Wilson deep -- the worn out Alex Avila (who became the second left-handed hitter to homer off Wilson this post-season after only two managed to do so all year) and the physically limited Delmon Young twice -- with Young's second bomb completing the first natural team cycle (single, then double, then triple, then homer) in Major League playoff history. Although I haven't heard the point raised and am not sure I'd buy it anyway, I suppose it's possible that the 461.1 innings Wilson has logged in 2010 and 2011, after years of dramatically lighter workloads in relief, might have caught up to him a bit.
Unless he's called on to pitch in relief in a Game Seven on Sunday, Wilson's next appearance will be in Game One of the World Series, or for someone on Opening Day 2012, or perhaps the day after. I sure hope he gets another chance to avenge what has been a lackluster trio of playoff starts and do what Number One's do, even if it has become more clear that that's a level -- when you combine reliability with arsenal -- at which Wilson has yet to establish himself.
2. The string of underwhelming playoff starts for this club, which is nonetheless a home victory away from the World Series, continued on Thursday, and it's disheartening. It's certainly fair to believe in the possibility that four of the Rangers' five starters (if you count Alexi Ogando) could be even better next year, and that's without even considering Neftali Feliz as a candidate, but I'm not sure who in the rotation I can't wait to get the ball to right now.
The 2012 rotation issue is another story altogether, with Wilson returning or not, but that's for another day.
3. Texas got out of the gate looking pretty good against Verlander, much as the club did against Doug Fister in Game Three. Ian Kinsler doubled to left, Elvis Andrus hit a ball solidly to second to move Kinsler over, Josh Hamilton drove Kinsler in with a sacrifice fly, Michael Young doubled to the left field corner, and Adrian Beltre lined out to third base. Each squared up on what, at least early on, was 93-mph Verlander velocity, forcing him to throw 18 pitches as the Rangers claimed a 1-0 first-inning lead.
But by the third and fourth innings, Verlander was pumping 97 and 98 and touching 99, and in a huge spot against Beltre in the fifth, he registered a 102-mph reading that he would say after the game was his first all year. Verlander kept getting stronger, all the way until the final four of his 133 pitches. The Rangers have gotten only three starts of 100 pitches or more in their nine playoff games this month -- Verlander threw 94 strikes last night.
4. The Rangers tied the game in the fifth but had the chance to do more, and another opportunity in the sixth to jump back out to the lead, but Verlander kept them from getting it done.
In the top of the fifth, after Mitch Moreland fanned, Kinsler walked and Andrus singled, after which Hamilton singled to center, driving Kinsler home and Andrus to third with just one out. But Young, after pushing the count to 2-1 on three consecutive fastballs tripping triple digits, swung through a 92-mph fastball and watched a curve ball settle in for strike three. Beltre then drove that 102-mph heater to right, missing the foul pole by what appeared to be no more than a foot, before fouling another fastball off and driving a curve to deep center field, a ball that leaves most parks but was cradled easily by Jackson for the third out of what could have been a much bigger inning.
Then, in the sixth, Mike Napoli singled, and after Nelson Cruz fanned, David Murphy doubled to right center on a ball that was nearly caught, and if Napoli had positioned himself better and had a better jump, he might have scored. Instead, he stood at third (and Murphy at second) with the struggling Moreland at the plate and Kinsler on deck. Verlander shockingly walked Moreland on four pitches, serving notice that he might have been tiring after what was then 112 pitches.
Seemingly on the ropes and left in to face Kinsler, the Rangers' leadoff hitter -- who had worked 15 Verlander pitches in his first three plate appearances and stepped in with the big righthander having just thrown four straight out of the zone to the Rangers' weakest link -- swung at Verlander's first pitch, a 99-mph fastball on the inner half, and grounded into a very easy 5-3 double play, ending a serious threat, giving Verlander a second wind that he would carry into the eighth, and firing up a Tigers crowd that stayed on its feet for most of the eight batters and four runs that would push across in the bottom of the frame.
The fluky Cabrera topper that trampolined off the third base bag and over Beltre's head for a double came minutes after Kinsler's grounder to third killed a rally. The first bouncer to third went for two outs, the second one went for two bases, and had either play gone a different way, there's a sense that the game itself might have, too.
As for the seventh inning, one word:
Why the Rangers went to Koji Uehara, two days after he'd apparently told reporters (following Game Three) that he believed Wash had justifiably lost confidence in him, I have no idea. Wash said before Game Five that everyone in the bullpen was available, though he'd hoped to avoid using Ogando.
A 6-2 game after six, with this offense and this bullpen, was hardly out of reach, particularly with Verlander having already gone over 110 pitches and Jim Leyland having said Thursday morning that Joaquin Benoit and Jose Valverde would not be used. Why would Uehara be given the ball in that situation?
Uehara's fifth pitch was driven over the fence in right by Ryan Raburn, giving Detroit a 7-2 lead that would eventually be one pitch away from potentially being erased, thanks to a Napoli single and Cruz homer off Verlander in the eighth and a Hamilton double-Young single-Beltre walk sequence off Phil Coke with two outs in the ninth that had Napoli up as the go-ahead run. It was an impressive, energizing burst there at the end, even if it came up just short.
That's all I have to say about Koji this morning.
5. So we head to a Game Six, and there's some familiarity with the situation. Last year, Wilson lost Game Five of the ALCS -- facing C.C. Sabathia, the subject of an ESPN New York report yesterday identifying Texas as an interested off-season suitor (I'm not buying it) -- by a 7-2 score, after which Texas came home to win Game Six and a World Series berth behind a brilliant Colby Lewis start.
This time, Derek Holland is being asked to take the ball, opposite Max Scherzer and a rested Tigers bullpen as he was in Game Two, and Holland needs to be a lot better than he was that time, when he couldn't get out of the third inning. Scott Feldman and Ogando will be set to rescue Holland again if not, but that's really a game that the Rangers need to take, even though it's Detroit who must win or go home.
Because if there's a Game Seven on Sunday, Fister gets the ball, Lewis will be pitching at home (where he generally hasn't been as good), and Verlander said Thursday night that he'll be ready to pitch in relief if needed.
We talked yesterday about the fact that Texas hasn't lost consecutive games since late August, and this is no time to bust that streak, letting the Tigers even the series up and giving them a significant dose of added momentum and the opportunity to get Fister back on the mound.
The first 162 and the nine that have followed all lead to this, and it sure would be nice for Holland to reach down within and summon up his best work on Saturday, something Wilson was unable to do on Thursday, and make Sunday an off-day rather than the first Game Seven this club has ever played.