Offense has gone 17 scoreless innings since first frame of Game 1
DETROIT -- Two games into the American League Division Series, this is how the Tigers expected their playoff fortunes to hinge. They needed to get runs across early, let their starters protect a lead, carry it to the late end of their bullpen, and let Joaquin Benoit take it from there.
They're 1-for-2 in executing the plan, and it allowed them to head home Sunday with a split on the road and a chance to finish out the best-of-five series against the A's. Yet they did not figure, even in their gloomiest prognostications, that plating runs would be this difficult.
The numbers are daunting. The Tigers have gone scoreless for 17 innings since Austin Jackson spurred a three-run first inning off Bartolo Colon to open the series. They've been held to four singles in their last 12 innings, and three of them didn't leave the infield.
They had every reason to applaud A's rookie Sonny Gray for the masterpiece he delivered Saturday night in Game 2. Take away the name and look at the pure pitching, and the Tigers encountered an ace-like performance. According to stat guru Bill Chuck, Gray left just 10 pitches over the middle of the plate, to just three Tigers hitters. They swung at eight, fouling five off and turning the other three into outs.
The Tigers went off video and advance scouting against a pitcher they had never seen before. To hear hitters talk, it only helped to an extent. They weren't prepared for the caliber of pitcher they saw.
"It's completely different," Don Kelly said. "You can sit there and watch the video as much as you want and try to pick up what he's trying to do to hitters and figure things out. But then you get in the box. His 94 [mph] was firmer than 94. It had a little cut to it at times. He'd occasionally throw a straight one, but a lot of times, his fastball was cutting, which gives it the appearance of just being harder."
At the same time, that's what postseason baseball is about. Rarely do teams play into October with pitchers with track records and scouting reports that beg for a pounding.
"I just think the pitching has been that good," manager Jim Leyland said. "That's why teams are in the postseason. That's what happens."
Good pitching beats good hitting. At some point, good teams have to find a way to do enough against good pitching.
"You go an entire season producing runs however you produce runs," Alex Avila said. "In our case, it's extra-base hits and home runs, same in their case, as well. You try to take advantage of any opportunity you have. The thing about postseason is that, more times than not, you're not going to have many opportunities. Usually the team that takes advantage for the one or two hits during the games, wins."
Both Avila and Leyland said good pitching doesn't change their style of offense. However, their style has seemingly shifted a bit on its own, starting before the playoffs began.
To judge based upon the Tigers' output in recent weeks, they're not going to pound pitchers into submission on offense. Even when guys have hit, they haven't hit for an abundance of power in a while. Miguel Cabrera's groin injury is only part of it.
Prince Fielder's .337 average and four home runs seemed like a prelude for a postseason breakout. For most of the season, though, he has been more of a line-drive hitter. So far this series, he has a ground-ball single, three groundouts, three flyouts and a double play. Victor Martinez is a sneaky home run hitter at this point in his career, but hits more liners.
The offense has hit 16 home runs since Sept. 1, second fewest in the AL, and Fielder and Martinez account for seven of them. The only other Tiger with more than one is Avila, with two.
Detroit's .270 average in September ranked third among AL playoff teams behind Boston and Oakland. Its .387 slugging percentage, however, ranked ninth, lowest of all the AL teams that made the postseason. The no-hitter by Miami's Henderson Alvarez came against a lineup with several reserves, but a fair number of regulars had their at-bats as well.
In two postseason games since, there are signs of a Tigers team trying to manufacture offense -- not necessarily well, but trying. They've made three outs on the basepaths during their 17-inning scoreless drought, all on runners trying to advance. One was the hit-and-run attempt with Jose Iglesias on first Saturday that resulted in a strikeout-throwout double play. Another was Torii Hunter's attempt to take second while Bartolo Colon wasn't paying attention, and replay suggested Hunter might have been safe.
"I think you watch how it's going and you try to be a little creative," Leyland said. "When I say that, it wasn't certainly overcreative. We ran [Iglesias on a] 3-2 [count], which you normally do during a season. And we put one hit-and-run on. But runs are stingy.
"You just kind of use a little common sense, and you kind of smell what you might need to do. And we're not going to come out tomorrow and try to steal five bases, but you pick a slot."
If track records are any indication, they might not have to. Jarrod Parker, who starts Game 3 (Monday, 1 p.m. ET, MLB Network), is the one A's starter this series the Tigers have consistently hit, including eight runs on nine hits over 3 1/3 innings April 14 in Oakland and two wins in last year's ALDS. Game 4 starter Dan Straily beat the Tigers with six innings of one-run ball in August, but he also has been susceptible to walks.
Leyland announced Sunday he'll start Jhonny Peralta in left field Monday to try to stretch out the lineup with productive hitters. Peralta's track record against Parker isn't strong, but with Andy Dirks struggling for the past month, Leyland's willing to take a shot. Jackson, who has solid numbers off Parker, has gone 0-for-7 with five strikeouts since his double to lead off the series.
Leyland is trying to get something going. To expect a move to spark the powerhouse offense some projected out of this lineup wouldn't be fair. What they need now is something workable.