Originally, this was supposed to be a column about the overwhelming positives of the Detroit Tigers somehow managing to steal two games from the Boston Red Sox and heading back home for three games with waves of good feelings.
Then, as has happened so many times in the playoffs, David Ortiz stepped to the plate. The Tigers had piled up five runs in the middle innings, which given the offensive circumstances, felt like 50. Max Scherzer kept missing bats despite giving up one run. There were only six outs standing between Detroit and a commanding 2-0 series lead which would have all the significance of a choke hold. It looked as close to a sure thing was possible.
However, two walks and a hit combined with all around messy relief pitching complicated matters. Joaquin Benoit entered, trying to wiggle off the hook for the third time in the week, but with one swing, Ortiz hooked him instead. He lashed a frozen rope which cleared the abominable short fence at Fenway Park (it would have been a single or an out in any other ballpark) missed Torii Hunter’s glove and tied the game. After more errors in the ninth inning, the Red Sox’ celebration was finally complete.
Welcome back to life, Boston. For nearly 17 innings, the Tigers landed salvo after salvo, battering the Red Sox’ bats and psyches with power pitching and enough hits to get by. Shane Victorino was arguing with umpires. Johnny Gomes was staring at his bat as if it was to blame for his hitting woes. Boston was doing everything but anything positive, drifting afloat in a sinking ship until Jose Veras, Drew Smyly and Benoit decided to throw them rowboats and some oars.
There will be temptation for folks to say Detroit’s still in good shape considering they accomplished the necessary misson of winning just one game in Boston. Technically speaking, that’s correct, but it’s not addressing the elephant in the room of how the Tigers lost late Sunday night; in walk off fashion after their closer had blown the game when the Red Sox looked to have literally nothing left. With one swing, positive vibes became something Detroit had to search for rather than realize, and mental fatigue might shift and take up residence in the other dugout with the dramatic struggles of the bullpen.
Sound like 2004 to you? Those Red Sox, casually left for dead too, needed anything to rally against the powerful New York Yankees, who rolled through them for three games and appeared to be in their heads. But in game four, a hit here, a hit there and an Ortiz home run after that shook things up. Hey, the Yankees still led 3-1 after that loss. They were in good shape too, right? History now says otherwise.
In playoff baseball, losing follows writing’s Five W’s to a tee, and they become so important in the grander narrative. Tuesday, the Tigers face their biggest challenge of the year with their best pitcher, Justin Verlander, on the mound. A 2-1 deficit at home against Oakland? Nothing. Needing to win on the road to advance to the ALCS? Still not as big as this. Win convincingly Tuesday, and Sunday’s slam might be rendered as irrelevant as Raul Ibanez’s 2012 heroics in the Bronx. Lose without continuing to find their offensive footing while seeing the bullpen struggle again? Let the fun begin.
In October, one hit can always change everything. The Tigers will have their chance to prove that at home, but it will take deep guts and a short memory to override Ortiz’s latest titanic shot.
Max DeMara is a senior editor at The Detroit Sports Site. You can find him on Twitter @SportsGuyTheMax