DETROIT – Miguel Cabrera, who'd lived an entire season on his bat barrel, at the end sought sliders from that imp and genius of a closer, Sergio Romo, seeking one more bat barrel.
Only Cabrera stood between Game 5 and winter late Sunday night at Comerica Park, between a chance and none, between Justin Verlander and a trip home. Romo adores his slider, especially against right-handed hitters. Cabrera, a right-handed hitter, likes them fine. He's unique like that. He'd get one. Romo would miss, hang one, and he'd get it, he was sure.
There were two out in the bottom of the 10th inning. The bases were empty. The San Francisco Giants led, 4-3, visions of a four-game sweep and another World Series championship fizzing in their heads. They hung over the rail of their dugout, bouncing eagerly in their spikes. The crowd leaned in and, in spite of too much evidence otherwise, tried to believe one last time in its Detroit Tigers.
Romo had thrown the first batter of the inning – right-handed hitter Austin Jackson – four pitches, all sliders. Left-handed hitter Don Kelly got sinkers. Cabrera arrived with the season on his back, a Triple Crown winner gone cold in the World Series, with two more strikeouts in Game 4 but an opposite-field home run seven innings before. That's what he wanted, to stay inside one of those sliders, to drive it up into the wind, to let the backspin carry it over the wall and into more chances.
Romo threw a slider that grazed the bottom of the strike zone. Cabrera took it for strike one. He threw another, too far outside. Another, that Cabrera swung through. He'd swung too hard, been too eager. Romo's fourth pitch was another slider, off the plate away, and Cabrera refused it. The fifth pitch was a fifth slider, maybe ball three, maybe strike three, and Cabrera flipped it foul. Too close to take, too wide to do anything with.
These were the Tigers again, unwilling to budge in an at-bat. Find a pitch, hit it hard, pass the inning to the next guy. This was the best hitter in the game, not surviving, but searching. In a game that howled elimination, the Tigers had not stepped aside for the coronation of the Giants. When it was too cold, and the mist wet-willied their ears, and the American flag in left-center field whipped itself into a corn dog around its pole, they'd fought for Game 5. On one of those nights it might have been just as easy to walk away, they refused. They'd get bloody first.
The Tigers had gone down, 1-0, in the second inning. Then Cabrera hit his two-run homer in the third. They'd gone down, 3-2, in the sixth, then Delmon Young homered in the next half-inning. A pair of soft hits in the 10th, the second by Marco Scutaro, put the Tigers in a 4-3 hole.
Then came Cabrera. Prince Fielder stood on-deck. Five pitches, all sliders, came and went.
"From the first pitch to the last pitch," Cabrera said, "I was looking slider." Romo had come to be a closer not when Brian Wilson's elbow blew in early April, but after Santiago Casilla had washed out of the job in mid-July. Built more like a bat-boy than a closer, he'd matured in a set-up role, then took hold of the ninth inning. He'd saved three games in the playoffs, allowing a single earned run over nine appearances and 9 2/3 innings. His knockout pitch is his slider.
With a 2-and-2 count on Cabrera, with the wind whipping his uniform pants, Romo looked in at catcher Buster Posey. Posey, of course, asked for what he called Romo's "plus, plus slider."
Almost imperceptibly, Romo shook his head. There was only one other option. Romo wanted the fastball.
In the dugout, pitching coach Dave Righetti considered Romo's headshake. To him, that didn't look like a false shake, like Romo and Posey were conspiring to deceive Cabrera into believing he'd get a fastball, only to come back with the slider. He assumed Romo would throw it inside, to maybe get a call on that side of the plate or miss in a place where Cabrera's bat barrel wouldn't be.
Posey set up and braced himself for the fastball.
"That just shows what kind of faith he's got," Posey said.
Romo threw the fastball. It was the last pitch Cabrera expected. He looked for spin. He looked for movement. He looked for bite and dive. The pitch split the strike zone, 89 mph of "hit me." Cabrera did not swing.
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Righetti said he knew right then the pitch was perfect, and not until then.
"When the guy caught it and the guy put his arm up," he said, laughing.
That's when he thought, "Helluvan idea."
The Giants chased each other from the dugout. Romo flipped out. Gloves flew. Caps fluttered.
The Tigers watched Cabrera trudge to the bat rack. They perhaps then wondered what to make of themselves, of a drab 88 wins, but an AL Central title. Of a pennant, but not a single World Series win. Of a city that embraced them, that showed up and loved them, but went home disappointed.
After knocking out the game Oakland A's in five, then the deflated New York Yankees in four, the Tigers batted .159 over four games of the World Series. They'd hardly given themselves a chance against the wound-up Giants and their end-to-end game. It would be symbolic for some that Cabrera would leave with his helmet on his head and his bat in his hand, that Fielder would beat him to the dugout by a few steps. Cabrera batted .231, Fielder .071.
"My hitting was no good," Cabrera said. "I was not able to do my best job, to say the least. I was trying to. And nothing happened."
A few lockers over, Fielder sat in his chair, staring into the room. Jim Leyland hugged Verlander. The general manager, Dave Dombrowski, shook each player's hand. The reporters had come and gone from Fielder's locker, and still he sat. He wore his uniform, his jersey untucked but still buttoned to the top. He'd kicked off his spikes.
It was over, and he knew it. His first season in Detroit had been special. He'd signed the big contract and hit well. After Game 5 of the division series, Leyland had sought him out for a long hug. Leyland had whispered something into his ear and Fielder had nodded appreciatively. By the last game of the last series, Fielder had become nearly lost at the plate. He struck out twice in Game 4, just as he had in Game 3.
"Yeah man," he said, "I gotta go home and wake up and bring my kids to school. It definitely sucks."
Not that all that was a bad thing, but that it had to be tomorrow and not next week. That it had to be as the World Series runner-up and not the champion.
"It's unfortunate it closes out like this," he said. "You win some and you lose some, you know? We lost four."
They'd been run out of one game, the first one. Then they lost 2-0, 2-0 and 4-3. They'd lost in those shadowy areas where the Giants played so well. The Tigers hadn't hit, not at all, and maybe that was a problem that arose from the layoff of five days between series, but what difference did that make now? They didn't ever get the ball back to Verlander. They wouldn't fly back to San Francisco. They wouldn't make a series of it.
"Yeah, I mean, I'm a little bit flabbergasted, to be honest with you," Leyland said. "In both of those series, I never would have thought that we would have swept the New York Yankees and I never would have thought that the Giants would have swept us. But it happened. It's a freaky game, and it happened, and so be it."
At the very end, indeed, the season would go dark on a fastball that should have been a slider. That ridiculously small exchange, between a hitter who didn't believe it would come and a pitcher who believed it would, with all his heart. A subtle shake of the head. A re-grip. A deep breath. A catcher's eyes, a pitching coach's confidence, and the moment when no one knew what would happen next.
Cabrera least of all.
This is how the Tigers went out.
"I think," Cabrera said, "this was not the right way to finish."
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