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DETROIT — One of the shortest offseasons in 113 years of Tigers baseball could also be one of the longest.
If Detroit can’t heist two games at Fenway Park this weekend, this bout with the Red Sox for the AL pennant will be remembered as the series that achingly got away.
The Tigers moved to the brink of postseason elimination with a star-crossed 4-3 loss in Game 5 of the championship series on a chilled and rainy Thursday night at Comerica Park.
Their third one-run loss in this historically tight series was not as agonizing as the first two — the blown late five-run lead in Game 2 or the 1-0 loss in Game 3 that defied Justin Verlander’s brilliance. But as the Red Sox took a three-games-to-two lead, it was another one that left the Tigers and a crowd of 42,669 stumped.
League ERA leader Anibal Sanchez went from untouchable to unexceptional, Miguel Cabrera’s ill-fated early dash through third base coach Tom Brookens’ stop sign foreshadowed a parade of missed opportunities, and now the Tigers must win back-to-back elimination games in one of the game’s toughest environments to keep alive a season with World Series expectations.
If there is a team built for the comeback, it is these Tigers. They will start 21-game winner Max Scherzer in Game 6 and Verlander in a potential Game 7.
"We've got to win one game," Tigers manager Jim Leyland said. "That's obvious, win one, then you’ve got a shot to win the next one."
Yet for another night, the baseball gods gave awfully strong hints the dream will have to wait.
After Sanchez pitched six no-hit innings in Game 1, it was clear early that Thursday would not be a rerun. Sanchez allowed a two-out single to Dustin Pedroia in the first inning and began to stagger in the second.
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Mike Napoli, whose solo home run provided the only run in Boston’s Game 3 win, activated Murphy’s Law in driving a belt-high 3-1 fastball 460 feet into the center-field shrubbery.
Jonny Gomes then reached on an error by third baseman Miguel Cabrera, Boston’s No. 8 and 9 hitters — Xander Bogaerts and David Ross — hit back-to-back doubles, and an infield single by Jacoby Ellsbury skipped off Sanchez’s glove to put the Red Sox ahead 3-0.
It got no better in the third, with Sanchez’s two-strike, two-out wild pitch to Stephen Drew pushing across Boston’s fourth run.
Last weekend in Boston, Sanchez had the swing-and-miss stuff to negate his scattershot control (six walks). On Thursday, he had neither, in all allowing four runs — three earned — on nine hits over six innings.
"One of those tease outings," Leyland said. "Sometimes really good, sometimes not."
Frustration also mounted at the plate, beginning with the crossed signals in the first inning.
With runners on first and second and two outs in the first, Jhonny Peralta ripped a single to left field. It appeared to be a station-to-station hit with the hobbled Cabrera the lead runner at second. Yet Brookens almost inexplicably started to windmill his arm, only to throw up his hands with the brake sign just before Cabrera reached third base.
By then, Cabrera, his head down, had his GPS pointed to home.
He was out by five steps, jogging standing up into the waiting tag of catcher David Ross.
"I think what happens with two outs, you’re thinking score," Leyland said. "That's the old baseball thinking. But in this particular case with Miggy, you've pretty much got to hold him up. There was nothing Miggy could do. He saw Brookens waving. It’s just one of those unfortunate things. ... [Brookens] probably made a mistake."
It was the first in a long line of blown chances.
Detroit rapped on the door time and again. The Tigers had 11 hits, ran Boston ace Jon Lester from the game with one out in the sixth, and hacked away with single runs in the fifth, sixth, and seventh innings. But they could never deliver the stadium-rattling blow.
Adding injury to insult, Alex Avila was pulled from the game after a rattling home-plate collision with Ross in the second inning. Avila held onto the ball for the out but suffered a left knee patellar tendon strain. Leyland was unsure of his availability for Game 6.