DETROIT — Alex Avila stood on the top step, ensconced in his Tigers warm-up jacket, and stared onto the field, where the Giants had worn out another welcome, winning a second World Series in three seasons by clinching five of six playoff rounds on the road.
“Just processing it, basically,” Avila, a 25-year-old catcher who didn’t play in World Series Game 4′s 4-3 loss because of an injured forearm. “It’s not easy to get to this point, let alone get in the playoffs. There are hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of players who, in 15-to-20-year careers, never get to sniff a World Series. It’s definitely tough and, to be honest, seeing that celebration is going to be etched in my mind and used as motivation.”
San Francisco had raced to the pitching mound after the Tigers’ last and greatest hope, Miguel Cabrera, down to a final out , had struck out down a run and needing a rally in both the game and series. Giants closer Sergio Romo threw Cabrera five straight sliders down and away before coming back over the plate with a called-third-strike fastball, ending the World Series in a four-game sweep at the hands of the Giants, leaving Detroit without a championship since 1984.
“We wanted to win a ring for Mr. Ilitch and the city of Detroit,” Cabrera said, referring to Tigers owner Mike Ilitch, who bought the franchise in 1992. “It’s very disappointing because we didn’t get it done.”
It was a thorough rout few saw coming after the way Detroit dealt the Yankees a similar fate in a four-game ALCS sweep, and that Cabrera would make the last out almost felt unfair. His third-inning home run gave the Tigers’ their first lead of the World Series, in their 30th inning. He was the first Triple Crown winner in four and a half decades and is a co-favorite for AL MVP, a brilliant season with a brutal ending.
At least Cabrera made meaningful contributions at the plate, albeit less frequently than Detroit had grown accustomed to. He chipped in three hits and three walks for a lineup that suffered back-to-back shutouts in Games 2 and 3 and scored just six runs in the series.
“We never found our confidence at home plate,” he said. “We couldn’t get it done.”
His middle-of-the-lineup cohort, Prince Fielder, struggled the most, managing just one hit, a single, in his 14 at-bats. Similarly, ace Justin Verlander allowed five runs in four innings in his Game 1 start. In other words, the Tigers — a team defined by its superstar triumvirates — got far less from them than they had expected.
But parceling out individual blame on a club that batted .159 and had one reliable reliever for most of the postseason would almost be unseemly. After all, it was Cabrera who made the final out and Phil Coke, the aforementioned reliable reliever who struck out the first seven hitters he faced in this World Series, who allowed the winning run to San Francisco, while trying to complete his second inning of relief — something he had only done four times all season.
To the end of time it can be debated, without resolution, whether the five-day layoff in between the ALCS and the World Series harmed the Tigers and whether it would have made a difference in determining the better team over the past five-day span.
“We got outplayed,” Verlander said. “Whether that had anything to do with time off, I don’t know.”
Verlander and Infante were the only two Tigers who appeared in their last World Series as well, a five-game loss to the Cardinals in 2006 after waiting out a similar period of idle time, and Infante had to be re-acquired from the Marlins at the trade deadline in order to make his second appearance. The Giants, meanwhile, won another title while retaining only 11 players from the 25-man roster two years ago.
Baseball’s become a game of remarkable turnover, but the Tigers are well situated for the next few years, as Verlander is under contract for two more years, Cabrera for three more and Fielder for five more, a star-studded nucleus complemented by several other key, core players like catcher Alex Avila, centerfielder Austin Jackson and starters Doug Fister and Max Scherzer, not to mention the return of designated hitter Victor Martinez from a year off due to a major knee injury. “I don’t think a lot needs to change,” Verlander said.
“We do have the team to get back here and be good for several years,” Avila said. “It’s definitely an opportunity lost, but it doesn’t take away from the fact that we were able to be Central division champs again and win the American League.”
The Tigers even underachieved most of the season, needing a second-half surge to get to 88 wins and an entry in the postseason tournament, but they seemed to have a team built for winning the title. The starting pitchers — of whom only Anibal Sanchez is a free agent — had a 1.90 ERA in 85 and 1/3 playoff innings, and the offense, through two rounds, hit a capable amount.
That’s what makes this loss so hard for a ball club that persevered through a shaky first half and was peaking at the right time until October’s final week.
Each playoff appearance is a treasure, making each disappearance of the team’s best play so crushing, never more so when it’s so inexplicable such as this week. Clearly the Giants were the better team, but surely the Tigers were better than they showed, making their hasty exit so difficult and something they’ll carry with them.
“To be honest,” Verlander said, “the ’06 bitter taste is still in my mouth.”
This was an outstanding season for the Tigers, but it was not enough. The Fielder signing, in the wake of Martinez’s injury, signaled the franchise’s urgency to win at all costs. The front office, the manager and the nucleus of the roster are all in place, as is Mr. Ilitch, the aggressive owner who has enabled such baseball growth in the past decade.
With that stability, maybe some day soon there will be joy in Motown, and the Tigers won’t strike out.