DETROIT – If anyone understood Alex Avila's position – standing alone, holding the ball, blocking the plate, ready to take a hit for his team – it was David Ross, the man charging at him.
Like Avila, Ross is a catcher, one of the guys who straps on the gear and crouches down and does the dirty work and takes all the punishment. Like Avila, Ross has a concussion history and missed time this season recovering from brain trauma. They had just talked the other day, actually, about everything they had gone through, all they had in common.
But there was no time to think, and there is no quarter now, not in the American League Championship Series – an honest, hard-fought, back-and-forth battle between the Boston Red Sox and Detroit Tigers set for a stirring finale at Fenway Park.
The Red Sox went home with a 4-3 victory and a 3-2 series lead Thursday night, needing to win one out of two this weekend to go to the World Series. For the fourth time in five games, the teams were separated by one run. There was pitching, defense and baserunning, and the big hits weren't limited to the bats.
Ross called it a "physical game."
"I'm going to be pretty sore tomorrow," he said.
How often do you hear that in baseball?
Like Avila, Ross had been in a dangerous spot. The Tigers' Jhonny Peralta had singled to left in the first inning, and Miguel Cabrera had rounded third and headed for home – running through a stop sign from third-base coach Tom Brookens, hobbling on his bad hip and groin, trying desperately to score in a series in which runs have been precious.
Left fielder Jonny Gomes had thrown a one-hop strike, and Ross did not want to risk a sweep tag. He couldn't afford to drop the ball, so he had blocked the plate and steeled himself. Cabrera is listed at 6-foot-4, 240 pounds.
"Right now," Ross said, "you don't want to take anything for granted."
Cabrera sort of side-swiped him, and Ross held on for the out.
Now it was the second inning. Mike Napoli had given the Red Sox a 1-0 lead with a monster home run into the ivy in dead center – "It's still going," Boston's Dustin Pedroia said later, after midnight – and Ross had given them a 2-0 lead with an RBI double. He had advanced to third, and he was going on contact with the Tigers' infield in.
Shane Victorino hit a grounder to second. Omar Infante came home with the ball.
"I ran as hard as I could," Ross said.
Avila caught the ball, then looked to his left. He did not want to risk a sweep tag. He couldn't afford to drop the ball, so he blocked the plate and steeled himself. Ross is listed at 6-2, 230.
"Once I turned and saw he was coming at me, I didn't have too much time," said Avila, listed at 5-11, 210. "If I would've gone one way or the other … I didn't want to risk either missing a tag on him, or if there was a collision with me trying to get out of the way, losing the ball that way. I think I had a better chance to hold onto it like I did if I faced him head-on, which is probably a bad idea."
Ross lowered his right shoulder. Avila lowered his right shoulder. As they smacked into each other, Avila's left knee twisted. His helmet and mask flew off. And the ball stayed in his glove for the out. Ross got up and patted Avila on the rear.
On they played.
The next time Ross came to bat, in the fourth inning, he said something along these lines to Avila: "Hey, man. Didn't give me a choice. Just going hard."
"And he understood, I think," Ross said.
Avila did, even though Ross fouled a pitch back into his mask during that at-bat, even though Avila left the game soon afterward with what the Tigers called a patellar tendon strain in his knee. (He is expected to be ready for Game 6 on Saturday night.)
"It was a good, hard play," Avila said. "We all realize it's a tough position. A situation like that, he wasn't sorry for doing it. But I realize he had no other choice."
Avila would have done the same thing, right?
"Exactly," Avila said.
This has been good, hard baseball. Detroit won Game 1, 1-0. Boston won Game 2, 6-5, and Game 3, 1-0. After a 7-3 Detroit victory in Game 4, they gave us another tight one.
The Red Sox offense woke up against Tigers starter Anibal Sanchez, the same guy who no-hit them for six innings in the series opener. They took an early 4-0 lead, when they had struggled to score early and led for only four of 36 innings entering the game. But the Tigers clawed back and made it close, and they didn't succumb until the nine-hole hitter, Jose Iglesias, ended a nine-pitch at-bat against closer Koji Uehara with a pop-up to second.
"It's guys not giving up," Ross said. "Did you see their at-bats late? They weren't giving anything away. That last at-bat by Iggy, I mean, he's just not giving away an AB. Not going to do it."
Not now. Not on either side. No matter what.
The Red Sox will now face the Tigers' aces: Max Scherzer, the presumptive Cy Young winner, in Game 6 on Saturday night; and Justin Verlander, a former Cy Young winner and MVP, in Game 7 on Sunday night, if necessary. But Boston has already won games both have started.
The Tigers will now put Scherzer on the mound knowing he allowed only one run and two hits in seven innings in Game 2, knowing they lost only because David Ortiz hit a game-tying grand slam in the eighth, knowing that Ortiz has only one other hit in this series – a bloop single.
If Scherzer pitches like that again, then the Tigers have a great chance to get to Verlander, who allowed only one run on four hits in eight innings in Game 3 and lost only because a solo homer by Napoli was enough. If Verlander pitches like that again in Game 7 …
Well, it should be a hell of a matchup with John Lackey. It has been a hell of a series. Keep your head up. These guys are going hard, and you best be ready for what's coming down the line.