Why the Tigers really lost the 2013 ALCS, and it wasn’t because of Big Papi’s grand slam

Detroit manager Jim Leyland addresses the media after the Tigers lost Game Five of the 2013 ALCS.

With the Tigers shopping major assets at the trade deadline, and maybe stripping the team down to the floorboards for a full rebuild, everyone’s writing their obituary for the franchise’s recent championship hopes. The early consensus is that the cause of death was David Ortiz’s cataclysmic grand slam in the 2013 ALCS.

“If [Joaquin] Benoit threw a better pitch there … maybe the Tigers would have won the World Series,” wrote Michael Rosenberg of Sports Illustrated at the time. Some are more certain. Lynn Henning wrote in May that a Tigers championship “should have happened in 2013 until Edgar Allan Poe decided to write a script for an eighth inning at Fenway Park.”

It’s as though it wasn’t just Torii Hunter but the entire franchise and fan base who crashed over that fence, head first, legs splayed, dreams dashed for good. Some observers, like Dan Holmes here at Detroit Athletic Co., have gone as far to skewer manager Jim Leyland for the loss in the 2013 ALCS. You’d think the Ortiz blast sent the Red Sox straight to the World Series.

But it didn’t. That was Game Two. The Tigers left Boston with the ALCS tied at one game apiece. And the rest of the series was reasonably competitive. If we’re going to pin the team’s championship failure on that one series, let’s at least get our story straight.

Splitting the first two games in Boston still left a best-of-five series in which the Tigers held home field advantage. You could say Ortiz’s home run gave the Red Sox momentum, but in baseball momentum is supposed to be only as good as your next starting pitcher, and the Tigers had Justin Verlander on the hill in Game Three. Pitching with a chance to give Detroit the series lead, Verlander was magnificent, striking out 10 in eight innings while allowing only four hits. Unfortunately one of those hits was a home run by Mike Napoli.

Even more unfortunately, the Tigers’ offense came up empty. The crucial moment in Game Three—the possible actual turning point in the series—was in the bottom of the 8th, with runners on 1st and 3rd with one out. Miguel Cabrera was at the plate with Prince Fielder on deck. It was a tailor-made opportunity for postseason heroics. But Cabrera and Fielder both struck out. The Tigers lost 1-0. Everybody blames the bullpen for 2012 and 2013, but save some scorn for the sputtering offense, too.

That Game Three loss in the 2013 ALCS was the one that put the Tigers in trouble: they’d squandered a gem by Verlander, their big bats failed to come through in the clutch, and they’d lost at home—a cardinal sin in the playoffs. As a result, unlike after Game Two, the Tigers trailed in the series.

As grim as things looked after Game Three, the Tigers bounced back in Game Four, piling on Jake Peavy with a five-run 2nd inning and winning 7-3. Now it was a best-of-three series. But they fell behind 4-0 early in Game 5, then rallied but couldn’t close the gap and lost 4-3. Only then were they on the brink of elimination. At this point, even if they’d won Game Two, they’d still be heading back to Boston with all kinds of question marks about two one-run losses and a squandered opportunity back in Detroit.

The Tigers gamely stared defeat in the face in Game Six, taking a 2-1 lead into the 7th inning behind the fiery Max Scherzer. Then Shane Victorino hit a grand slam over the Green Monster off Jose Veras. That was the grand slam that sealed it. Why isn’t that the one we see in our nightmares today? Is it just because that wall was too tall to dive over?

Even if the Tigers had prevailed in the ALCS—and again, it remained well within their reach until the very end—that still would have left the tiny matter of, you know, playing in and winning the World Series. The Cardinals were a tough out. The Tigers might have been favored, but we liked their chances against the 83-win Cardinals in 2006 and light-hitting Giants in 2012, and they went 1-8 in those two Fall Classics.

We have a tendency—maybe even a need—to capture the angst of postseason failure in a single moment and a single scapegoat. Red Sox fans loathed Bill Buckner for his infamous error in the 1986 World Series, even though it was reliever Calvin Schiraldi who blew the game, loading the bases and throwing a wild pitch to score the tying run. Cubs fans blamed Steve Bartman in the 2003 NLCS, even though it was shortstop Alex Gonzalez who botched an inning-ending double play hit by a Marlins youngster named Miguel Cabrera.

What happens is we conflate the gut-punch impact of those moments with the finality and totality of the eventual loss. That’s psychologically convenient, but it’s also bad history. And good history is one ingredient to a good future.

If you’re still stuck on the Big Papi grand slam, remember one last detail: it was not a walk-off home run. It tied the game. In the 9th inning of Game Two, the Red Sox put two runners on thanks to throwing errors by Jose Iglesias and Rick Porcello, then Jarrod Saltalamacchia hit a walk-off RBI single. The Tigers’ much-maligned relievers were nowhere in sight. So if you’re keeping track, you should now have 2013-related flashbacks involving Ortiz, Victorino, and Saltalamacchia. And several Tigers in addition to Benoit. (And a few more from 2012, including Justin Verlander’s inexplicable implosion in Game 1 of the World Series.)

Was the Ortiz grand slam devastating? Absolutely. Did it rob the Tigers of a chance to take command in the series? Yes, but not a chance to take it back. Did it demoralize the Tigers to the extent they could no longer win the series? I doubt it, but if it did it shouldn’t have. Did the moment seem to sum up the team’s endless bullpen woes? Yes, but it wasn’t just the bullpen that fell short in 2012 and 2013. The story of the Tigers’s championship chase under Mike Illitch and Jim Leyland, with Justin Verlander and Miguel Cabrera, is the story of an entire era, not a single pitch.

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About Nathan Bierma

Nathan Bierma is a freelance writer, web designer, and educational technologist living in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He is on Twitter at @nbierma.