DETROIT – The ball flew out of Joaquin Benoit's hand, cracked off David Ortiz's bat and soared into right center once again. Only this time, no game-tying grand slam, no goose bumps. The ball fell harmlessly into Torii Hunter's glove as thousands of Tigers fans twirled white rally towels in the cold. Ortiz hung his helmetless head and spat. That was it, the final out. Detroit Tigers 7, Boston Red Sox 3.
Not long afterward, the clock struck midnight local time as Ortiz dressed at his locker, putting on his gold chains, screwing in his earrings. Wednesday had turned to Thursday. It was a new day, and Big Papi – 0-for-14 in the American League Championship Series other than his big pop Sunday night in Game 2 – was asked if that home run seemed like a million years ago.
"The last one I hit?" he said. "It was the other day."
He laughed. He laughed a lot, actually, considering the series is now tied 2-2 and his team isn't scoring and now must win two out of three against the Tigers' trio of aces – Anibal Sanchez, the AL ERA leader this season, in Game 5 on Thursday; Max Scherzer, the presumptive Cy Young winner, in Game 6 on Saturday; and then Justin Verlander, a former Cy Young winner and MVP, in Game 7 on Sunday, if necessary.
By some measures, Boston has no business being in this series. After scoring more runs than anyone else in baseball in the regular season, they have scored in only seven of 36 innings against the Tigers. They have led for only four of 36 innings. They have managed three runs and struck out 42 times in 27 innings against Detroit's starting pitching.
They won two out of three facing Sanchez, Scherzer and Verlander in Games 1-3. But look at how they did it. After being shut out by Sanchez in Game 1, they got to the Tigers' bullpen in the late innings of Game 2, tying it with Ortiz's grand slam in the eighth and winning it with an RBI single by Jarrod Saltalamacchia in the ninth, 6-5; they then rode Mike Napoli's solo homer off Verlander to a 1-0 win in Game 3.
Sanchez no-hit them for six innings. Scherzer no-hit them for 5 2/3. Verlander no-hit them for 4 2/3. The three of them allowed two runs and six hits, while striking out 35. One theory is that the Red Sox should have more success seeing them for the second time, but we'll see.
"Hopefully," Ortiz chuckled. "Wish me good luck."
Ortiz praised all four of the Tigers' starters, including Doug Fister, who gave up eight hits but only one run in Game 4. For the first five innings, the Red Sox recorded one hit and no runs. They fell into a 7-0 hole. They tacked on three runs to make it mildly interesting, but went 2-for-16 with runners in scoring position and left 10 men on base.
"You're kind of looking for trouble, because you know this guy's pitching is not a joke," Ortiz said. "Fister pitching tonight, that was the best I've ever seen him. I don't know what it is about the playoffs. The way they've been pitching, it's a different game. They're taking things to another level."
Ortiz was asked if there was anything the Red Sox could do. Tigers manager Jim Leyland dropped Austin Jackson from the leadoff spot to eighth in the order and bumped up everyone else, and lo and behold, Jackson, who was hitting .091 in the postseason with 18 strikeouts, went 2-for-2 with two walks. Red Sox manager John Farrell said he was considering replacing struggling third baseman Will Middlebrooks with Xander Bogaerts, but Ortiz had another idea.
"I'm out of the lineup tomorrow," Ortiz said.
"Maybe," he said. "You never know."
He laughed again.
"Nah, it's OK, man," he said. "They just play better than what we did. What can you do?"
[Photos: Tigers vs. Red Sox in ALCS]
What you can't do is tighten up. What you can't do is panic. What you can't do is lose your sense of humor. After all, Boston put the bat on the ball Wednesday night with 12 hits, and if anyone has shown how things can change with one swing, it's Big Papi.
Ortiz went 0-for-5 on Wednesday night. He grounded to second. He grounded to second. He flew to center. He grounded to second again. Then he flew out to right. Even the Tigers' feeble superstar, Prince Fielder, has three times as many hits in this series than Ortiz does (all singles, no grand slams). But when Big Papi came up in the ninth against Benoit, the Red Sox had a runner on and the Tigers' four-run lead suddenly seemed a little smaller. The last homer he hit? It was just the other day.
"I was not comfortable until I saw the ball that Ortiz hit," Leyland said. "I knew it wasn't out of the ballpark. You're not comfortable. I never get comfortable during the regular season. I've been around too long for that. I have an appreciation for how fast things happen in a big-league game. They happen fast, particularly against a team like this."
Ortiz kept praising the Tigers' pitchers – how they could throw any kind of pitch in any situation, how they constantly put the ball in the right spot, how everyone was at his best except maybe for Verlander, who wasn't necessarily at his best only because his best is so ridiculous.
He kept laughing – until someone asked how he could be so confident if he thought the Tigers were so good.
"I'm not going to get frustrated," he said. "Just because I'm saying they're good doesn't mean it's over. I give credit to whoever deserves it. They're pitching their asses off. There's nothing you can do about it but come back and compete."