Monday, June 11, 2012

16 Pitches That Changed The 2012 Tigers' Season

I made the proclamation shortly after the game ended: Those were 16 pitches that changed the Tigers' season. 

My wife, the only potential witness (unless you count my then 15-month-old son who wouldn't exactly make a great witness at the moment), may or may not have been listening. 

The Tigers were bumbling and stumbling their way through a near-disastrous season. It was the top of the eighth inning and Detroit was trailing the red-hot Cincinnati Reds 6-3. Logan Ondrusek had relieved starter Homer Bailey but proceeded to walk Ramon Santiago to leadoff the inning and then surrendered a bloop single to Gerald Laird. 

His night was done and in from the bullpen became Alrodis Chapman - a guy who had been pitching like a left-handed Mariano Rivera, just another eight- to nine-MPH faster. It was almost assured a typical Detroit cliche would rear its ugly head again: The Tigers threaten but do not score.

But that is when the season changed.

Brennan Boesch was pinch hitting for pitcher Bryan Villarreal. Boesch, a hitter who occassionally runs "runs into pitches" as manager Jim Leyland says, has always struggled against lefties. Advantage: Cincinnati.

However, after Chapman's first offering was a 100-mph fastball in the dirt (miraculously blocked by catcher Devin Mesoraco) Boesch took the second offering, a 99-mph fastball, on the ground into right field. The bases were now loaded.

Next up was Matt Young, a AAA player called up due to injuries.

Young was completely overmatched. He fanned badly on a pair of 99-mph fastballs that bookended a 100-mph heater up and in. Luckily for Young (and the Tigers), Chapman's fourth pitch - a 99-mph blazer - grazed Young's barely jersey for one of the cheapest hit by pitches you'll ever see. Reds 6, Tigers 4. And the bases still loaded.

Leadoff hitter Austin Jackson, who had homered off Homer Bailey three innings earlier, was supposed to be Chapman's next (or, in this case, first) victim.

Chapman was the victim once again. Ball one bounced in at triple digits. After taking a strike at 98 mph Jackson ripped the next pitch - in nearly the exact same spot - down the left field line for a ground rule double. In the ultimate game of inches, a pinch of chalk splashed into the air signaling Jackson's ball was fair. Reds 6, Tigers 6.

With first base open it was an obvious move to intentionally walk Quintin Berry to load the bases for Miguel Cabrera. Wait, what?

Okay, so it wasn't an intentional walk. It wasn't even one of those "unintentional intentional walks." Chapman just couldn't throw a strike to Berry as every single pitch missed low and away while registering at either 98 or 99 mph.

Now the bases were loaded for the most feared hitter in baseball, Miguel Cabrera.

Desperate to find the strike zone Chapman took something off the first fastball. Still at an intimidating 95 mph he couldn't locate the zone. Reaching back and hitting 99 again, Chapman hit the outside corner on the second pitch. After 15 fastballs - 14 of them ranging from 98 to 100 mph - Chapman went to his devastating slider.

It was devastating all right, but only for the Reds. The pitch skipped to the backstop after nearly shining Cabrera's cleats. Tigers 7, Reds 6.

After that pitch Chapman found a groove. Even with the infield in he got Cabrera to ground out to second. Prince Fielder struck out and Delmon Young also grounded to second to end the inning.

But the damage had been done. The Reds sent seven men to the plate the last two innings but only Jay Bruce reached (on a single and eventually got to second on a wild pitch). The Tigers, given the gift of life, grabbed hold and never relinquished it.

The Tigers are still four games under .500 and this might not be a game that starts a 10-game winning streak. Nevertheless, when this season ends this will be one of the games that helped Detroit reach the playoffs and however far the Tigers can advance.

UPDATE: Detroit not only won the American League Central at 88-74 (three games over the Chicago White Sox) but the Tigers beat the Athletics (3-2) in the ALDS and swept the Yankees in the ALCS to reach the World Series. While the 4-0 sweep by the San Francisco Giants in the World Series will undoubtedly leave a bad taste in Detroiters' mouths remember this: The Tigers very easily could have been a major disappointment, failing to reach the playoffs after being pegged as World Series favorites. There was that June game in Cincinnati that made all the difference. (October 30, 2012)

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