Wild ending no surprise for Tigers

You must remember this: A kiss is just a kiss, a fly is just a fly. But on Sunday at Comerica Park, Al Alburquerque delivered the former, Don Kelly delivered the latter, and the Tigers are suddenly up two games to none and heading west needing just one victory to play for the American League pennant. A kiss? A fly?


“Had you ever witnessed a pitcher kiss the ball before?” someone asked first baseman Prince Fielder about the toss from Alburquerque to end the top of the ninth, a play that would ultimately make Alburquerque the winning pitcher of this 5-4 decision, despite facing just one batter.

“Nah,” Fielder said, his face broadening into a huge smile. “But I thought that was the coolest thing I’ve ever seen.”

Tigers fans felt the same way. Alburquerque, with his third pitch, got Oakland rookie Yoenis Cespedes to bounce a ball smack into his glove. He give it a peck — the way one might kiss a love letter before mailing it — and then tossed it Fielder’s way for the inning’s final out. And if Oakland players felt it was showboating, well, perhaps it was. But let’s be honest. Did you watch this game? On a day full of hit batters, bobbled pop-ups, underthrown pitches and overthrown catchers, why wouldn’t you kiss a baseball when it actually went where you wanted it to go?

“That’s the first time I do that,” Alburquerque said afterward, smiling. “It was just the emotions of the game.”

The same emotions that, minutes later, in the bottom of the ninth, Kelly would display in a raucous, leaping infield celebration, after he came to the plate with the bases loaded and whacked the second pitch high into right-centerfield, allowing Omar Infante to tag up with the winning run.

Rarely have fans been so happy to see an out.

“Unbelievable,” Kelly would say.


You almost saw this ending coming. Well, OK. Maybe not THIS ending. But there are playoff days that are all about superstars — and Sunday afternoon was not one of them. The story line here was never going to be aces or cleanup hitters. The main names were never going to be Justin Verlander, Miguel Cabrera or Fielder.

Nuh-uh. Not when the Tigers’ first four runs came on a dribbled ground out, a botched fly ball and a wild pitch. Not when the A’s tied the game, at one point, on a stolen base another stolen base, and a wild pitch — all during the same at-bat! Followed by a solo home run! Crazy? It was crazy. There were pitches in the dirt, a pitch that sailed over the catcher’s head, bloop singles and a midair ballet by Oakland’s Coco Crisp, trying to basket-catch a fly ball, then lose it, then glove it, then lose it, then swipe it with his bare hand, then drop it. All that was missing was the music from “Swan Lake.”

And two runs scored.

It was one of those games, and every playoff series has them, so weird and jerky, that you knew a relief pitcher or a late substitution would turn the tide.

As it turned out, it was both.

First, consider Alburquerque, who spent much of the 2012 season coming back from elbow surgery — and by “much” I mean April, May, June, July and August. He only joined the Tigers early last month. Sunday was his first decision of the year. He threw three pitches!

Then again, after Joaquin Benoit allowed two runs in the eighth — on the wild pitch and the home run — and Phil Coke put two men on in the ninth, all Jim Leyland wanted from Alburquerque was something normal. You know. Like an out?

“That’s what a team’s all about,” Leyland said afterward. “Everybody making contributions.”

Donnie Baseball

No one fills that role the way Kelly does. Here is a guy who looks and talks as if he’s straight out of Pleasantville, a 32-year-old who has bounced around the minor leagues, then the majors, then the minors, then the majors, a guy who goes up and down but whose attitude never does.

“I’ve been in this role for a while,” he said, his smile unflinching. “You keep yourself loose, keep yourself ready in the cage.”

The cage? That’s right. Kelly, who had a .186 batting average coming into the playoffs, spent a chunk of Sunday’s game stretching, backpedaling and breaking a sweat in the batting cages, just in case Leyland needed him. He got the call to pinch-run in the eighth and scored the tying run on a wild pitch (on this day, what did you expect?). The next inning, after an intentional walk to Fielder to load the bases, he came to the plate with one out and delivered the winning sacrifice fly.

Officially, he went hitless.

In every other way, he was the hero.

“It was a great feeling to be up there and be able to come through,” Kelly said. A series like this, “it’s gonna take everybody. You saw it yesterday, and you saw it today.”


Sealed with a kiss

So now it’s off to Oakland, where the Tigers get three chances to win one game. You have to like their odds. They send Anibal Sanchez to the mound for Game 3 Tuesday and — if needed — they have Max Scherzer for Game 4 and have Verlander for a decisive Game 5. If Verlander and Scherzer are in normal form (a big if for Scherzer, by the way), they might strike out 20 guys. The A’s are a scrappy bunch, but they swing at a lot of pitches: In two games, they’ve struck out 23 times.

Meanwhile, the Tigers seem to be playing with the flair and fun that you look for in a postseason run. There’s a lot of laughter and a clear spirit of camaraderie. And while you understand why Oakland players like Josh Reddick complained about Alburquerque’s kiss on the seams, guys like Fielder see it as what baseball should be about.

“He just caught it, there was no panic,” he said. “It was awesome, like we were just playing round. No, I don’t advise someone to kiss the ball. But if (you) can do it, it’s cool. Just don’t mess up.”

On Sunday, it was more like ending the mess. Alburquerque’s smackeroonie sealed the A’s batting. Kelly’s sealed the final result.

By the way, the last time the Tigers had a walk-off postseason hit was in 2006, when a Magglio Ordoñez homer sent them to the World Series. If Kelly’s fly is dipped in that tradition, it isn’t just Alburquerque who will want to kiss that baseball.


Posted by Tribune News Services

Leave a Reply