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Tigers relievers unable to follow starters' lead

In battle of bullpens, Boston's steady arms trumped Detroit's costly mistakes

BOSTON -- The Tigers seemed to match up perfectly with the Red Sox in so many areas, but ultimately, this 2013 American League Championship Series was defined by the bullpen -- and that's the one area where Detroit came up short.

In the coming days, when Detroit goes back to analyze where things went wrong in the best-of-seven series, most of the answers will lead back to a struggling relief corps and a pair of crushing grand slams.

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There was the David Ortiz shot in Game 2 that stopped the Tigers from taking a commanding lead in the series, and then an even more devastating knockout blow by Shane Victorino on an 0-2 pitch from Jose Veras in the decisive Game 6.

"It was a curveball, [Victorino] hadn't done much with breaking balls this series, and you have to give him credit for hitting it hard," Tigers catcher Alex Avila said. "Ideally, you maybe want it a little lower, something if he's going to swing, he's not making contact.

"But I know Veras, and he was trying to make a very good pitch there. It was a little bit up, which allowed him to get some good wood on the ball, but he hadn't been hitting very many breaking balls either and you have to give him credit, too."

The tale of the two bullpens couldn't have been more different in this series, but earlier in the year, they were eerily similar. Both organizations went through more than their share of struggles with the back end of the bullpen, but by October, one team had figured everything out and the other was still searching for answers.

Boston auditioned three closers before finally settling on Koji Uehara in late June. Uehara enjoyed an impressive stretch where he was one of the most dominant relievers in the game, and took home the MVP Award in the ALCS. Left-hander Craig Breslow and Junichi Tazawa also emerged as the year progressed and the Red Sox solidified a reliable late-inning trio.

Detroit tried just about everything but couldn't find a similar solution. There was a closer-by-committee approach coming out of Spring Training, and then a brief appearance by last year's castoff, Jose Valverde, that ultimately didn't work out. Eventually, Joaquin Benoit stepped up as a viable closer, but the club's middle relief wasn't solidified. Never was it more glaring than in the ALCS.

The Tigers' bullpen surrendered seven earned runs in 12 2/3 innings against Boston. The Red Sox allowed just one earned run over 21 innings, and in a series where four of the six games were decided by one run, that proved to be the biggest difference.

"I can't go back right now and say, 'Why didn't you throw this pitch?' I can't blame myself, I can't fight myself with that," Veras said. "I have to live with that, we lost the game, I tried my best. You see all the series how we battled day by day, but tonight was their night. They played better baseball than us. In a short season, whoever plays better has the advantage."

The one thing that the Tigers will have to live with during the offseason is that they lost the series to Boston despite having received dominating performances from their starting rotation. Max Scherzer, Justin Verlander, Anibal Sanchez and Doug Fister were everything the organization could have hoped for and more.

Detroit's starters posted a sparkling 2.06 ERA during the ALCS, but as hard as it might be to believe, the club didn't receive a win from either Scherzer or Verlander -- two of the best pitchers in the game. A lack of offense certainly comes into play, but it doesn't change the fact that the Tigers would be headed to the World Series without blowing the lead in Games 2 and 6.

"When you see games like that, decided by one run, they give you a lot to look forward to," Benoit said. "In this situation, one pitch away to get out of it and you end up with a grand slam. It's something that we should do better, because the guys that hit the grand slams didn't do much the whole series."

Ortiz and Victorino combined for a total of just five hits in six games against Detroit. Two of them happened with the game on the line, and in both cases it was Detroit's bullpen that got exposed.

The Red Sox's bullpen never was and that remains one of the main reasons they are going to the World Series while the Tigers once again head into the offseason trying to find the right pieces so it doesn't happen again.

"The way I would sum it up is that I thought their starters were good," Tigers manager Jim Leyland said. "I thought their bullpen was great. I certainly don't want to sound like I'm taking anything away from their starters, because I'm not. I thought their starters were good. I thought their bullpen was great."

Gregor Chisholm is a reporter for Read his blog, North of the Border, and follow him on Twitter @gregorMLB.

Detroit Tigers, Joaquin Benoit, Jose Veras