I’d like to be writing this after Game 7 of the ALCS, after the Tigers completed their comeback from a 1-3 deficit to oust the defending American League Champion Texas Rangers. But I do not have a crystal ball, so I write it now.
This is going to be either something you chuckle at and shake your head, filing it under another one of Eno’s silly rants, or it’s going to be wonderfully prophetic.
First, some background.
The 1968 World Series was becoming a St. Louis Cardinals field day. After four games, the Cards led the series 3-1 and twice they had vanquished the Tigers’ 30-game winner, Dennis McLain.
Then the Cardinals jumped out to a 3-0 lead in the very first inning of Game 5 at Tiger Stadium. The World Series was turning into a laugher.
But the Tigers had clawed to within 3-2 whenSt. Louis’s Lou Brock stood at second base in the fifth inning. What happened next is something any Tigers fan worth his salt knows of—and I don’t care how young you are.
Julian Javier singled to left field and Detroit’s own Willie Horton, who grew up playing baseball on the sandlots on the city’s west side, fielded the ball at his waist on one hop. Willie fired the baseball toward the plate, the speedy Brock tearing for home.
The ball and Brock arrived at almost the same time. Catcher Bill Freehan, who was one of the best at blocking the plate, stood his ground. Brock, perhaps with too much hubris, eschewed a slide. Freehan tagged Brock as Lou zipped by.
Brock’s problem? He missed the plate, by a sliver of dirt.
Home plate umpire Doug Harvey got it right, as so many of them do, without the benefit of TV replay, like their football counterparts so often need.
The series, they say, turned on the Horton-to-Freehan erasure of Brock.
The Tigers went on to win Game 5, 5-3, and then returned toSt. Louisto complete the stunning comeback.
If the Tigers pull off the barely thinkable—swiping three straight games from the Rangers to advance to the World Series, I submit that a square, white hard pillow that sits in manager Jim Leyland’s office will be looked at as the turning point of the ALCS.
It was another Game 5, another series where the Tigers trailed, 3 games to 1.
Miguel Cabrera, the Tigers’ best hitter and maybe the best hitter in all of baseball, was at the plate in the sixth inning. There was a runner, the much maligned but vindicated Ryan Raburn, standing on first base.
Only due to a Houdini act by Tigers starter Justin Verlander in the top half of the inning, in which Verlander escaped a bases loaded, one-out jam with a double play, was the game still tied, 2-2.
So it was, that when Cabrera stood in the batter’s box, where just minutes earlierComericaParkhad turned library-esque as the Rangers threatened, the ballpark was rocking.
Cabrera swung and sent a hard grounder toward third base. Literally, as it turned out.
Rangers third baseman Adrian Beltre, one of the slickest glove men in the game, awaited Cabrera’s worm killer. If you’d have been able to freeze the baseball and read it, next to Bud Selig’s signature you would see, “DOUBLE PLAY.”
But then the baseball hit third base. Not dead on, but enough to cause the ball to skip unnaturally over Beltre’s head. Beltre stood stunned, looking like someone out of the audience of a magic show whose shirt had just been removed.
The baseball bounded into the left field corner and caromed around long enough for Raburn to score easily, breaking the tie.
Cabrera’s shot off the third base bag was the domino that caused the Rangers to fall. After Cabrera’s double that was disguised as a double play ball, Victor Martinez tripled to right, his opposite field drive eluding Rangers outfielder Nelson Cruz.
Martinezruns like a car on blocks, so to misplay a ball that enables Victor to steam into third base standing up isn’t an easy feat. But Cruz pulled it off. Cabrera scored, and it was 4-2,Detroit.
Delmon Young was next, and he tomahawked C.J. Wilson’s pitch over the left-center field wall for a 6-2 lead. The Tigers went single, double, triple, home run—in that order—and turned a tenseComericaParkinto a carnival.
Of course, the Rangers and their ferocious offense made a game of it, falling by the uncomfortably close score of 7-5, leaving two men on base in the ninth inning.
Leyland, after the game, made no bones about the part third base played in the Tigers’ go-ahead rally.
“I have that bag in my office right now,”Leyland told reporters after the game about the base itself. “And that will be in my memorabilia room at some point.”
Could Cabrera’s ricochet off third base be the turning point of this year’s ALCS?
Could it join the Horton-to-Freehan play? Could it be in the same category as Nick Lidstrom’s goal from center ice againstVancouverthat jump-started the Red Wings in the first round of 2002?
Both the ’68 Tigers and the ’02 Red Wings won championships in their respective sports.
It’s too early to tell, of course, whether Cabrera’s baggie will mean a hill of beans in this series. It could just be an isolated incident in a series whose breaks have gone mostlyTexas’ way.
But if the Tigers come back and steal this series, it would be derelict to look at the sixth inning of Game 5 as a whole—and Cabrera’s groundball specifically—and say that it had nothing to do with sparking the comeback.
It’s part of the magic and mystique of playoff baseball—when in a flash moments can occur that have an impact on a series in ridiculously inverse proportions.
It may sound nuts to say that a ground ball off the third base bag in Game 5 will determine who wins the 2011 ALCS.
But this is baseball, and that kind of play is just crazy enough to turn a series upside down.
We’ll see, won’t we?