So much for being a juggernaut

Originally Published: October 21, 2006
By Jerry Crasnick | ESPN.com

DETROIT -- One bad game won't make World Series tickets readily available in this city, or prompt Tigers fans to ask for refunds on their Curtis Granderson and Placido Polanco jerseys, or alter the mood to the extent that Anita Baker can expect to be booed when she sings the national anthem before Game 2.

But after a 22-year World Series hiatus, Tigers fans certainly hoped for something better than a return to the Bobby Higginson era.

Maybe it was St. Louis starter Anthony Reyes deftly painting the corners, or the rust accumulated from a six-day layoff, or the law of averages catching up to a team that won only 19 of its final 50 regular-season games. The Tigers had won seven straight postseason games and been borderline perfect since dropping the Division Series opener to the Yankees. Maybe they were due to go from juggernaut to just plain not.

"It was a bad pitch. It wasn't a bad pitch to most people, but it was to him. He's one of the best hitters in the game -- if not the best -- and he gets paid to hit those pitches."
-- Tigers starter Justin Verlander on allowing a third-inning homer to Albert Pujols
It was the all-around lousiness of their play Saturday that seemed so striking. They didn't hit, pitch or field, and manager Jim Leyland flunked his biggest test of the evening by getting cute with Albert Pujols. In a span of two hours and 54 minutes, the Tigers went from prohibitive World Series favorites to looking flatter than the bill of Reyes' cap.

In the Detroit clubhouse, opinions varied on why the Tigers played so poorly in their 7-2 loss to the Cardinals. Third baseman Brandon Inge, when asked if the extended layoff since the American League Championship Series was a factor, didn't discount the possibility.

"Maybe, possibly," Inge said. "The intensity wasn't quite there, and it seems like we were one step behind. I would imagine that's what it was from. But when it's the World Series, you shouldn't be relaxed at all."

The Tigers' relative lack of patience at the plate is common knowledge at this point. They ranked 28th in the majors with 430 walks this year -- ahead of only Seattle and the Cubs -- and struck out 1,133 times, the ninth-highest total in baseball. When they're in full-scale hacking mode, opposing pitchers can induce a lot of quick innings.

The Detroit lineup showed a different side against Oakland in the ALCS. Barry Zito threw a whopping 92 pitches in 3 2/3 innings in his start, and Rich Harden sweated it out for 105 in 5 2/3.

Reyes, in contrast, was a model of efficiency. He needed only 90 pitches to complete eight innings, and he threw 21 of 28 first-pitch strikes. On the other hand, the Tigers swung at 10 of those 21.

The Tigers made 17 outs on flyballs or popups -- a bad sign on a cool fall night in a ballpark with one of the most spacious outfields in the game. The Detroit hitters seemed antsy, particularly when they fell behind in the count, and when they did get pitches they could handle, they were a fraction late and fouled balls back to the screen.

Although Leyland thought the Tigers got a little home run happy, Reyes clearly deserved credit for spotting his fastball and baffling the Detroit lineup with his late movement.

"He did a great job of moving the ball around," said Tigers outfielder Craig Monroe. "He's a guy who hides the ball pretty good, and he can be a little bit tough to pick up. He's kind of sneaky."

It was a stark contrast from Reyes' last start, against New York, when he was telegraphing his pitches so blatantly from the windup that Cardinals pitching coach Dave Duncan told him to work out of the stretch even when the Mets didn't have any runners on base.

Brandon Inge
Morry Gash/AP PhotoBrandon Inge went 0-for-3 with a strikeout and was charged with two errors.
It wasn't only the Detroit hitters who failed in Game 1. Starter Justin Verlander knew from the outset his velocity was down, so he relied more on offspeed stuff than usual. During his playoff starts, Verlander was clocked consistently in the upper 90s. Against the Cardinals, his fastball registered more in the 89-93 range.

And he made an obvious mistake by giving Pujols a fastball that was a little too appetizing with first base open in the third inning. After Pujols drove it 379 feet into the right-field seats, the TV cameras captured Verlander flashing a wry smile of regret.

"It was a bad pitch," Verlander said. "It wasn't a bad pitch to most people, but it was to him. He's one of the best hitters in the game -- if not the best -- and he gets paid to hit those pitches."

Before the night was through, Verlander would heave a pickoff throw into right field, and Inge would throw a ball away and receive a second error for baserunner interference on Scott Rolen. Some Tigers suspected that Rolen could have avoided the collision, and engaged in a little gamesmanship by colliding with Inge.

"It's a smart play," Inge said. "I'm not saying it in a mean way, or that he tried to hurt me. But it's kind of surprising when a 250-pound guy bounces off you likes it's nothing. He might have been hamming it up a little bit."

This is the way it went for Detroit in the Series opener: Too many downbeat faces lugging bats back to the dugout, and too many slapstick moments to regret. Just a day ago, everyone treated this series as a foregone conclusion -- except for the Tigers themselves.

"It was the same thing in the New York series, when people thought we were going to lose 3-0," said Tigers first baseman Sean Casey. "All that stuff is really overrated. The favorite. The underdog. The bottom line is, they're the best team in the National League, we're the best team in the American League, and at the end of seven games we'll see what's going on."

Seven games? Maybe it was just a slip of the tongue by Casey. Or perhaps the Tigers realize that in this most unpredictable of Octobers, nothing is as easy as it seems.

Jerry Crasnick covers baseball for ESPN Insider. His book "License To Deal" was published by Rodale. Click here to order a copy. Jerry can be reached via e-mail.

Jerry Crasnick | email

ESPN.com MLB Sr. Writer

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