© 2011 MLB Advanced Media, L.P. All rights reserved.
DETROIT -- They would ask Victor Martinez, hours after he injured his intercostal muscle, about his prospects of playing the following day.
"The only way I don't play tomorrow," he would respond, "is if I wake up and I'm dead."
Lose Martinez, amid the injuries that have already limited or removed Delmon Young, Magglio Ordonez and Brennan Boesch from the picture, and the Tigers might be exactly that: dead.
And that's precisely what made V-Mart's simple stride to the on-deck circle such captivating theater in Game 3 of the American League Championship Series on Tuesday night -- a night the Tigers changed the tone of this best-of-seven set in a big way.
The sharp pain in his side had subsided enough for Martinez to stand on-deck. And that was the extent of his activity. Standing.
Sure, there was some stretching. There were a few adjustments of the gloves and helmet. But this was pre-at-bat preparation notable for the small but important detail that Martinez was merely holding the bat, not swinging it.
Still, he was standing in that spot. And that was significant, in and of itself.
Runners were on first and third. Two out. Miguel Cabrera at the plate. Colby Lewis, looking every bit the ace he has been for the Rangers' pitching staff this postseason, on the mound. A 1-1 tie in the fifth.
If you're Lewis, what do you do? Pitch to Cabrera -- an elite talent in an untimely funk? Or pitch around him to get to V-Mart -- a premier hitter, in his own right, who may or may not even be able to swing the bat?
Well, 'tis the season for clutchness and confidence, if not outright blind optimism. It's why the Tigers pitchers took pregame BP -- World Series prep work by a team in a 2-0 hole.
Lewis would say he never even considered pitching around Cabrera. His manager, Ron Washington, would say the same.
But in that moment, every other human being in Comerica Park was thinking something else entirely. This would be the moment that would define what was, without question, a must-win for the home nine. And if Lewis challenged Cabrera here, he'd either be tempting fate or sealing it, depending on the outcome.
In the crowd, there was a certain sense of restlessness. During pregame introductions, they booed third-base coach Gene Lamont for holding Ramon Santiago at third in the ninth inning of Game 2. They booed Ryan Perry for serving up the game-ending grand slam to Nelson Cruz. A few entitled souls even booed Cabrera when he made the last out of the third. In fairness, those boos might have been more of a general statement on the Tigers' RISP woes at large, but they were booing the MVP candidate and heart and soul of the lineup, all the same.
There would be cheers in the fourth, when Martinez connected on the solo shot that knotted the score at 1, but even those were quickly muted.
The home-run trot is supposed to be heroic, but this one was pure agony to watch. V-Mart's pained, plodding pace made for a trip around the bases that seemed to last as long as Aretha Franklin's take on "The Star-Spangled Banner," which is to say that it took forever
. And if the joylessness and frustration in Victor's usually smiling face didn't say enough, then the solemn look on his teammates' faces in the dugout "celebration," followed by the slammed helmet and quick retreat down the tunnel and into the clubhouse, finished the job.
A boost and a bummer, all at once.
"I was scared," admitted Cabrera, who is much more accustomed to inspiring such a feeling in opposing pitchers.
Victor was scared, too.
"We don't need another [injury]," he said. "Believe me. We don't need another one."
In the trainer's room, Martinez, taking full advantage of his DH duties, received treatment on his strained side while his teammates played on. Unbeknownst to the paying customers (and the Rangers), he took some full swings in the indoor cages. And as the Tigers staged a two-out rally with consecutive singles from Austin Jackson and Santiago in the bottom of the fifth, he returned to the dugout intent on coming to bat.
And this, make no mistake, was a game-changer.
Make that a series-changer.
Put Wilson Betemit in that on-deck circle (Young was officially on the shelf, and Betemit had a bat in his hand, just in case), and perhaps the Rangers opt to work around Cabrera.
We'll never know.
"[Cabrera] took bad swings on me in the first two at-bats," Lewis would say. "I wasn't worried about him in the third at-bat at all."
That seemed a strange thing for Lewis to say about a guy who is not only one of the more feared hitters in the game, but who also entered the night 5-for-12 with two doubles in his career against him. Again, though, confidence is the name of the game on this stage, even if it can be construed as overconfidence.
Lewis came right at Cabrera with three four-seam fastballs. The first was fouled off, the second was swung through, but the third? It was roped down the right-field line for the RBI double that sent Jackson streaking home.
That was the ice-breaker, as well as the back-breaker. This game was never the same from that point. The crowd came alive, and so did those Tiger bats we had heard so much about but heard surprisingly little from in Games 1 and 2. They would score twice more in the sixth, and Cabrera would cap it with a solo shot in the seventh. The Tigers would win, 5-2, to breathe life into an ALCS that had appeared to be getting away from them.
If Victor Martinez doesn't tough it out and stay in this game, maybe we're not talking in such terms. But he did.
He won't wake up dead.
And neither, in fact, will the Tigers.