DETROIT — Three virtuoso pitching performances. Two wrenching Tigers defeats. One bewildered clubhouse.
The clock is ticking on Detroit’s season after another mammoth late-innings swing overshadowed its latest brilliant start in a 1-0 loss to the Red Sox in Game 3 of the AL championship series at Comerica Park.
Justin Verlander lost a no-hitter in the fifth inning, then the lead in the seventh when Mike Napoli deposited a full-count fastball over the left-field fence.
As for Detroit’s bats? Don’t ask.
A sold-out crowd of 42,327 waiting to detonate never got the chance as the Tigers’ once-feared offense returned to its October stupor — an affliction that left no man behind.
The Tigers had runners on first and third with one out in the eighth inning, only to watch their two leading run-producers coldly set down. Miguel Cabrera, the league’s MVP favorite, chased three balls against Boston reliever Junichi Tazawa while cleanup hitter Prince Fielder was even more helpless against closer Koji Uehara, striking out on three pitches.
Four outs away from burying the Red Sox in a 2-0 ditch Sunday at Fenway Park, the Tigers now trail Boston 2-1 heading into Game 4 today.
“Obviously, it’s tough,” Verlander said. “To give my team a chance to win, I would have had to throw up all zeroes, and I wasn’t able to do that. ... This is just kind of the way it’s going to go. It’s going to be a battle for every single out, every single run. It’s two heavyweights going at it, and if you can’t appreciate this, you can’t appreciate baseball.”
It is debatable whether Tigers fans have the stomach for perspective, though Verlander is right. A heart-thumping series that has featured three straight one-run thrillers is becoming a classic in real time.
Tuesday’s game was the latest that left historians searching deep into the past for precedent, only to come up with precious few examples.
Consider that the Tigers are the first AL team to lose two 1-0 games in one postseason, or that there were just three 1-0 postseason games between 2002 to 2012. This tribute to the post-steroids era has already had two.
Verlander, too, continued to rewrite history.
Asked before the game about his off-and-on regular season, he said, “I attribute it to we’re not robots, we’re athletes.” But in truth, his right arm is likely more bionic than human.
His six straight strikeouts in the second and third innings matched a single-game postseason record while he later became the first pitcher to with 10 Ks or more in six playoff games — surpassing the record he shared with Bob Gibson, Randy Johnson, and Cliff Lee.
After the Tigers became the first team to have a no-hitter through at least five innings in three straight playoff games, Verlander nearly made it a fourth. His first blemish came on a two-out infield single by Jonny Gomes in the fifth that forced shortstop Jhonny Peralta to make an off-balance throw to first.
In all, his four-hit, 10-strikeout performance was the Tigers’ latest stonewalling start in a series of them. Their starters — Anibal Sanchez, Max Scherzer, and Verlander — have held the game’s best hitting lineup to two runs on six hits over 21 innings.
Problem was, Boston starter John Lackey matched Verlander zero for zero, K for K. Thought to be the Red Sox’s weak link after going 4-10 with a 4.48 ERA on the road during the regular season, the playoff-tested 34-year-old kept the hosts flailing.
Lackey allowed singles to Torii Hunter and Fielder in the first, then just one more hit until the seventh as the Tigers’ offense fell off the face of Detroit. The bottom third of the order went hitless, leadoff hitter Austin Jackson fell to 3 for 33 with 18 strikeouts this postseason, and Cabrera — beset by all manner of ailments — did not reach base for the first time in a record 33 postseason games. Cabrera also had a career-high nine swinging strikes in the game.
Lackey held the Tigers to four hits while striking out eight over 6 2/3 innings.
Manager Jim Leyland said he was unsure if he would rearrange his lineup today.
“I think sometimes you’ve just got to live with it unless you come up with something you really think makes sense,” he said.
Asked if he could believe the Tigers’ fate given their pitching, Leyland deflected credit to Boston.
“This is what it’s about in the postseason,” he said. “I thought Lackey changed speeds, made pitches all day long. He was terrific and so was Verlander. ... One swing of the bat and they hit one over the fence, and we didn’t.”
That was it. After Verlander struck out Napoli twice on sliders, he left a payoff fastball up in their third meeting. Napoli, who was previously 2 for 19 in the postseason, did not miss.
“Tough one today,” Verlander said, “but we’ll bounce back like we have all year.”