DETROIT – As the San Francisco Giants defiled his mound, his diamond, his dear Comerica Park, Justin Verlander draped his arms over the dugout rail. It was cold late Sunday night, the chill exacerbated by the sight of the Giants in celebration. Few Detroit Tigers had the desire to stand with Verlander, or the stomach for it.
Verlander was to pitch Monday. He'd thrown two bullpen sessions since Game 1, in which he was terrible. Six years before, on another field in another time, Verlander had watched the St. Louis Cardinals stagger through the same silly, beautiful ritual.
After six days passed between their ALCS sweep of the Oakland A's and their World Series date with the Cardinals in 2006, the Tigers had been flat and offensively meek. They'd been dismissed in five games.
The Tigers rebuilt and returned to the World Series. And after five days passed between their ALCS sweep of the New York Yankees and their World Series date with the Giants, they again were flat and meek. This time, they were done in four.
"There's no answer for that," Verlander said. "There's no telling if [the layoff] had an effect or not. There's no way to say yes or no. But, it kind of sucks that we had the exact same scenario as 2006."
A tour of a quiet Tigers' clubhouse filled with 1,000-regret stares brought praise for the Giants. They'd outplayed the Tigers. They were better. They were hotter. Giants pitchers had lived precisely, on the edges of the strike zone. As the series advanced, the Giants had chewed on the psyches of the Tigers' most capable hitters, feeding on their desperation to produce something.
How else to explain Miguel Cabrera batting .231? Prince Fielder with one lousy single in 14 at-bats? Jhonny Peralta one for 15? Only Delmon Young (.357) and Omar Infante (.333) seemed themselves. The rest started the series cold, finished it cold, and would take cold into the winter.
They'd spent those five days between series in batting practice. They'd gathered for intrasquad games. Cabrera singled against embattled reliever Jose Valverde in one of those games, then laughed and spread his arms, playfully mocking his friend during his "flight" to first base. Those five days, perhaps, had cost them again.
"Right now, we can say yes, a little bit," Cabrera said, "because we never found our game. … Maybe we were too relaxed. I think it's just not the right way to finish."
As a result of a lineup that batted .159 and struck out 36 times over 126 at-bats, the Tigers were vulnerable to the slightest bit of offense from the Giants. Over the final three games, a total of eight runs beat them three times. The last came off Phil Coke, the lefty who'd risen to closer, but whose role in this series was to keep deficits manageable. Or, as in the case of Game 4, ties ties.
After striking out the first seven hitters he'd face in the series, Coke made a decent pitch in the 10th inning and Ryan Theriot flared it into right field. After a sacrifice bunt and Coke's eighth strikeout of the series, Coke made a decent pitch to Marco Scutaro, who pushed that into center field. That's how the series would end, save for the minor detail of the bottom of the 10th inning, for which the Tigers would send the top of their lineup. All three batters, including Triple Crown winner Cabrera, would strike out.
Flat. Meek. Again.
Thing is, Verlander had intended to get the ball back, pass it to Doug Fister, have him pass it to Anibal Sanchez.
"I started getting the feeling we were going to win this game," Verlander said.
"Yes," he said.
"We had a chance to win it all," he said.
In the hours after the Giants celebrated for the second time in two years, in which their general manager – Brian Sabean – would be lauded for building another special team, in which plans for a Halloween parade in San Francisco would be set, the Tigers on a roll was a hollow notion.
The Tigers only wish they'd brought their game. Maybe they did, and the Giants were that much better. It was not an argument the Tigers would swallow. They believed they'd left something in that five-day shut-down, even as they commended the likes of Ryan Vogelsong and Matt Cain and Barry Zito and Madison Bumgarner and a shut-down bullpen. They'd just never seen themselves like this, so incapable of finding pitches and making good swings.
"We just weren't clicking," Verlander said. "This team and especially our lineup got a bum rap. A lot of credit to their pitchers, but it's a shame. Two times in a row for me we've just been playing too darn good. Then you hit the brakes and it's tough to get started again."
So, glumly, squinting against a fine mist, he'd gazed over the rail at a party to which he was not invited. The Giants were champions, and deserving ones. Pablo Sandoval was an MVP. Cain had pitched three series close-out games and acquitted himself well. This was their day. For a few hours, Justin Verlander's ballpark was theirs. Verlander looked on with admiration. And regret.
"Seein' 'em on my field," he recalled, "and wishin' I was one of them."
Not as a Giant. But as a Tiger. And surrounded by his own teammates.
"Wishing it was me," he said. "Us."
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