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FRANCISCO -- He swears that nerves were not an issue, but Tigers rookie Drew Smyly could not find his usual control when he stepped onto the mound Thursday for his World Series debut. He walked the first batter he faced in the seventh inning of Game 2, then ran a 3-1 count on Gregor Blanco, who was trying to bunt.
And then Smyly came back with a strike, a fastball that Blanco successfully deadened down the third-base line. The fastball that changed everything.
Blanco bunted it to a perfect spot, leaving catcher Gerald Laird to hope only that it might roll foul. It did not. And the next batter, Brandon Crawford, hit into a double play that pushed across the decisive run in a 2-0 San Francisco victory, which gave the Giants a 2-0 lead over the Tigers in this best-of-seven World Series.
"Everyone knows what's at stake," Smyly said. "It took me a while to find it, and by the time I did ..."
His voice trailed off for a moment as he thought back on what happened. Under normal circumstances, Smyly might not have even entered when he did, considering Phil Coke boasts more experience as a left-handed relief specialist.
But with regular closer Jose Valverde scuffling and manager Jim Leyland needing Coke for a potential save situation, it was Smyly who entered when starting pitcher Doug Fister allowed a single to the leadoff man on his 114th pitch in the seventh.
Some chaos followed, even if in Leyland's estimation the rookie did little wrong. Though Smyly could not immediately find home-plate umpire Dan Iassogna's tight strike zone, missing low with a few pitches that could have gone either way, he rebounded to induce Crawford's double-play ball.
"To be honest with you, we were absolutely thrilled to come out of that inning with one run, absolutely thrilled," Leyland said. "I mean, we had to score anyway."
The Tigers could not have known how difficult a task that would prove to be, with their offense blanked on the road against three dominant pitchers. Leyland went as far as to play his infield at double-play depth behind Smyly in a scoreless game in the seventh, willing to trade two outs for a run.
And no one really blamed him.
"I think that was a smart move by Leyland to play for the double play, because you have to score anyway," said Giants outfielder Hunter Pence, whose eighth-inning sacrifice fly provided a critical insurance run after another Smyly walk. "You don't want to give up two runs. That ball might have gotten through if they were in. You give up more hits. It also changes the at-bat for Crawford -- we don't know if Crawford is going to hit a ground ball. If the infield is in and he knows that, it's a different approach."
So it came to be that the Tigers blamed their rotten luck more than their imperfect bullpen. Just like in Game 1, when a ball careened off the third-base bag to gift the Giants an extra run, the game-changing play in Game 2 was a stubborn bunt that would not roll foul.
"It's a sign that they were going to win those two games here, and they did," said right-hander Octavio Dotel, who walked a batter and gave up Pence's sac fly in the eighth. "It's a sign. When you see a thing like that go for the team, everything's going on their side."
The first two games of this World Series gave the Tigers plenty of areas on which to place blame. They could criticize an offense that did not produce, a few quirky bounces or a starting staff less dominant than advertised. But they are unwilling to blame their hard-luck bullpen, which had to work overtime in Game 1 before taking a tough loss in Game 2.
"I think the minute you lose a 'true closer' or what people think you have, then people begin to question your bullpen a little bit more," Leyland said of Valverde, who officially lost his ninth-inning duties in the American League Championship Series. "But the bullpen tonight, they did fine. I have great confidence in our bullpen."
Even so, it was a downtrodden relief corps that reflected on Game 2 in various corners of a near-silent clubhouse. Valverde sat in front of his locker looking sullen for a moment, before donning his suit and departing. Dotel spoke of the rotten luck his team has endured. Smyly straightened his black-and-purple tie, then talked about how much optimism he had for his World Series debut.
"Everyone has confidence in everyone," the rookie said, shooting his eyes across the room. "What have we done? We gave up a couple runs tonight and lost, 2-0. That happens. That's baseball."