Cruz bruises Tigers again in ALCS Game 4

Tim Brown

DETROIT – Jose Valverde(notes) hopped from the mound late Wednesday night. It was a sad little dance.

And the people here, they rose to their feet, like they always did when he was finished pitching.

Only this time, they did so in silence, taking one last look over their shoulders at their Papa Grande – and at their season, and perhaps at the notion of getting the ball to Justin Verlander(notes) one more time – as they shuffled into the streets.

This time, the Detroit Tigers closer did not look to the sky, or shout his exultation. Relieved of the baseball with still two outs to get in the 11th inning, Valverde trudged across the field, left behind his muted jump step that no one really believed, the American League Championship Series blown to the brink of elimination.

It was that guy again. It was Nelson Cruz(notes), who'd once been run through waivers and now was ending playoff games, or all but ending them, from the seven hole in a Texas Rangers batting order that sometimes doesn't ever seem to stop.

He'd hit what would be the game-winning home run in the early innings of Game 1, ended Game 2 in the 11th inning with a grand slam, and wrecked Valverde in Game 4.

The gap between the Tigers and Rangers is so small Valverde couldn't slide through sideways. And yet after four games the Rangers have won three, because Cruz keeps showing up with a bat in his hand and an idea the Tigers will try to beat him inside, and he keeps putting the barrel on the ball.

[Slideshow: Check out photos from Game 4 of the ALCS]

The latest – his three-run home run ran off Valverde – piled on what already was a one-run lead, what would become a 7-3 win, and sets up opposing aces Justin Verlander and C.J. Wilson(notes) in Game 5.

"Everybody knows," Valverde said of Cruz, "this guy is a monster."

Valverde hadn't pitched more than an inning in an appearance during the regular season. He was into his second inning for the second time in three days, however. Josh Hamilton(notes) had ripped a double, he'd been ordered to walk Adrian Beltre(notes) and Mike Napoli(notes) had driven a run-scoring line drive into center field.

In that moment, thoughts turned to Verlander, their 24-game winner in the regular season who, by imprecision and circumstance, has but one win in October.

The Tigers were barely holding it together as it was, given the tenuous physical condition of Victor Martinez(notes) and Delmon Young(notes), along with that of their catcher, Alex Avila(notes). In a pitching time of year, they were leaning excessively on their pitchers, along with Miguel Cabrera(notes). They've strained to get rallies to his place in the order, then hoped there'd be no wriggle room for Rangers manager Ron Washington.

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What they could do, perhaps, was to outlast the Rangers, to keep pushing games into the late innings, to hope their moment would come along. They've dragged their injured, and leaned on what remains of their batter's box offense, and all it's gotten them is close. A one-run loss. Two extra-inning losses. And a close-up look at the offseason, all while the Rangers inched nearer to their second AL pennant in two seasons after going a half-century without one.

What all this leads to is Verlander.

The fourth-inning fastball to Cruz in Game 1, the 11th-inning slider to Cruz in Game 2, the 11th-inning sinker that didn't in Game 4, the pitches that weren't made, they come to the man who made more pitches over the season – both in quantity and quality – than anyone else in baseball.

Verlander is what saves the Tigers on Thursday afternoon, or the Tigers take what they can out of 95 wins and an AL Central title and a division series win against the New York Yankees and hope it doesn't feel too hollow.

"He's the guy we go to to bounce back from something like this," Tigers pitcher Rick Porcello(notes) said.

He said it as though they've done it before, which they haven't, and as though Verlander's postseason has been as dominant as the regular season, which it hasn't. Verlander has had two starts chopped up by rain. He has had trouble with his command, and therefore keeping runners off base. His postseason ERA is sneaking up on 6, which looks nothing like him.

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"I think he's tired," Tigers manager Jim Leyland said, like they all are.

Verlander denied it. The rain, he said. His mechanics, he said. His rhythm, he said.

No matter. Now Detroit looks over its shoulder at Verlander, past the three-games-to-one deficit, past Valverde, whom Leyland admitted is "running on fumes and heart," and past Cruz, the monster in the seven hole.

They win Thursday and play Saturday in Texas. It starts with Verlander, or it ends with Verlander.

"Hey, I'm not making any excuses," he said. "I have to go out there and pitch better."

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