Pitching to Cabrera cost the Rangers in Game 3

DETROIT – Ron Washington managed as though there was nothing to fear.

He was on a roll, a win on each arm, his pockets full, the guy across the table half off his chair.

Tigers first baseman Miguel Cabrera reacts after reaching second base on an RBI double that gave Detroit a 2-1 lead in Game 3 of the ALCS.
(Getty Images)

Then the Texas Rangers’ manager played it comfortable.

With the American League Championship Series teetering between competitive and inevitable, his pitcher put three pitches where Miguel Cabrera(notes) could reach them on Tuesday night, all in the same pivotal at-bat.

For that reason and a dozen others – but more that than any – the Detroit Tigers won Game 3, 5-2, and resumed a series that had been getting away from them.

They returned to Comerica Park, to a hazy full moon hanging over the left-field grandstands and an 0-2 deficit, to a sellout crowd maybe wondering where this was headed.

The Tigers had last left town with only two healthy corner outfielders and returned with Magglio Ordonez(notes) and Delmon Young(notes) wrapped in gauze. The lineup therefore was littered with utility players, part-timers. They’d departed to vanquish the mighty New York Yankees, which they did impressively in Game 5 of the division series, and returned a week later in an uneasy hole.

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In a hopeful moment of Game 3, their designated hitter – Victor Martinez(notes) – caught a fastball just right and rifled it into the right-field bleachers. The home run tied the score 1-1 in the fourth inning and even that ended in possible calamity. Martinez, who’d led baseball in hitting with runners in scoring position, injured himself on the swing. He trotted delicately around the bases, returned to the dugout and slammed his helmet to the concrete in disgust. He pointed to his right side, in the area of his oblique, signaling perhaps the very injury that had felled Young.

“The last thing we wanted,” Young said later.

While Martinez went to the trainer’s table, the fifth inning crept toward his place in the lineup. There were two out when Austin Jackson(notes) singled. Martinez returned to the dugout. Ramon Santiago(notes) singled, sending Jackson to third base. Martinez picked up a bat, hit a few baseballs off a tee behind the dugout.

Tigers manager Jim Leyland admitted he was, “very concerned, to be honest with you.”

The game would change here. One way or the other. Rangers starter Colby Lewis(notes) would find his way through it, give his offense another even-footed shot at Tigers starter Doug Fister(notes), or the game would begin to slip away.

Cabrera, the best hitter in this series, approached the plate. Second base was open. There were two out. After a delay, Martinez picked up his helmet, climbed the stairs, and reported to the on-deck circle. He twisted gently, hoping to find a comfortable posture. He guided the bat through a couple swings.

Maybe Leyland had put him out there as a ruse, hoping Washington believed Cabrera had protection in the order. Maybe Martinez had recovered, and he would be capable of his usual swing. And maybe Martinez simply believed he would will his way through an at-bat, the pain be damned. There was no way to tell.

Washington’s problem, though, was Cabrera. Though he’d done little in the series, this was the one man who could not be underestimated. A night earlier, in a tied game in the ninth inning in Texas, Washington had ordered Cabrera walked intentionally to load the bases for a perfectly healthy Martinez, who popped up to the infield.

And here it was again. Cabrera, a base open, and a presumably injured Martinez on deck.

“So,” Washington said afterward, “I’m not going to take another runner and put him at second base. The winning run is already at third base. I’m not going to do that.”

He had Lewis pitch to Cabrera. But, apparently, only for a couple pitches, both of which were very close to the strike zone, both of which Cabrera swung at. He fouled the first, missed the second.

That brought the third.

“We tried to make a pitch,” Washington said. “Colby didn’t get it there. Cabrera caught it.”

Rangers manager Ron Washington takes the ball from Colby Lewis during a sixth-inning pitching change in Game 3 of the ALCS.

It certainly appeared as though they tried to make three pitches, all against the one guy he couldn’t explain making even one pitch to, not when there was an alternative. And not when the previous strategy had worked. And not when the alternative was 40 feet away, trying not to grimace.

“Well, the ball was supposed to be out of the zone,” Washington said again. “He didn’t put it there. That was what was supposed to happen.”

Perhaps inspired by the two-strike count, Lewis again came dangerously close to the strike zone, again with a fastball, this one away from Cabrera. And Cabrera laced it into the right-field corner for a double. A run scored. The Tigers led, 2-1. They did not trail thereafter.

“That’s why he’s a great hitter,” Leyland said.

And that’s why you don’t pitch to him. Not there.

“If you were watching, he came up big tonight,” Leyland said. “If you watch baseball right now, it’s really interesting for me. Maybe not as much for you guys, but for me. If you look at opening day [of the playoffs] in Milwaukee, [Prince] Fielder, [Ryan] Braun, big, big time they came up. If you look at the second game, [Albert] Pujols. Cabrera, he came up. That’s what this is about. The big boys. That’s why they’re the big boys.”

Maybe, as Washington suggested, this was Lewis’ fault. But his catcher wasn’t standing up, asking for four balls. And Lewis wasn’t bouncing breaking balls, begging for Cabrera to go out wildly or not at all. Lewis was pitching to Cabrera. Maybe carefully, but still pitching to him, and there isn’t a scouting report anywhere that doesn’t state Cabrera will go outside the zone and still hit a ball on a line somewhere.

Asked if simply having Martinez in the on-deck circle was enough to force a decent pitch or two out of Lewis, Cabrera smiled and said, “I don’t know. I was like so focused on what he was going to throw there. At that point in the game, I was not really thinking.”

You can’t pitch to that guy. There’s no strategy against hands so fast and a soul that aggressive and a mind that blank. You sidestep that.

“Having Miguel in front of me,” Martinez said, “it’s kind of sad. With one swing he can bring everybody home.”

Or, the other guy can avoid that swing altogether. Because that’s the one that brought the Tigers back into the series.

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Tim Brown is a national baseball writer for Yahoo! Sports. He co-authored with Jim Abbott the memoir “Imperfect: an Improbable Life”.   Follow him on Twitter.   Send Tim a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Wednesday, Oct 12, 2011