It's impossible to imagine the opening three games of the American League Championship Series playing out any better for the Detroit Tigers. And yet, it's impossible to imagine the outcomes being any worse.
Despite a third straight unequivocally dominant effort by a starting pitcher, the Tigers somehow trail the Boston Red Sox two games to one.
Justin Verlander, who had thrown 15 scoreless frames in two outings in the division series, was his ho-hum self, allowing four hits and one walk while striking out 10 over eight more near-perfect innings. The right-hander, though, made one mistake and paid for it when Mike Napoli launched a solo home run to left field in the top of the seventh.
That run held up in a 1-0 Red Sox win in Game 3.
Here's the proof Verlander is, in fact, fallible:
That, by the way, was the first run Verlander allowed since his third-to-last regular-season start, which came on Sept. 18—almost a month ago.
It's impossible to imagine a scenario in which Tigers starters Anibal Sanchez, Max Scherzer and Verlander—as fantastic as they are—could have been any better than they were in Games 1, 2 and 3.
Consider this stat, from Doug Miller of MLB.com, which was pointed out prior to Game 3:
The Tigers became the first team in postseason history to post three straight games in which their starting pitcher opened with at least five no-hit innings. Verlander pitched 6 2/3 no-hit innings to open Game 5 of the AL Division Series vs. Oakland; Sanchez and relievers Al Alburquerque, Jose Veras, Drew Smyly and Joaquin Benoit no-hit the Red Sox through 8 1/3 innings in Game 1 of the ALCS; and Scherzer opened Game 2 with 5 2/3 no-hit innings.
And in Tuesday's Game 3, Verlander came within one out of extending that streak to four consecutive games to start out with a no-hitter through five innings.
Although Sanchez, Scherzer and Verlander allowed a total of just six hits and only two runs in 21 combined innings, the Tigers trail 2-1. How is such a thing even possible? Well, while Boston has scored all of seven runs in total through three contests, the Tigers have mustered one fewer, because they have repeatedly failed to get a key hit in a big spot.
Speaking of big spots, in Game 3 alone, Detroit had three instances of a runner on third base, two of which came with fewer than two outs. Each time the lineup failed to get in what would have been the tying run.
The biggest such situation, no doubt, came in the bottom of the eighth inning, by which time the Tigers had managed to get Boston's John Lackey (6.2 IP, 4 H, 0 R, 8:0 K:BB) out of the game.
With Austin Jackson on third and Torii Hunter on first, up to the dish stepped the very heart of Detroit's order, Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder. A fly ball, a slow roller, a mishit poke of a single was all that was needed to knot the game.
Cabrera and Fielder, though, could manage none of those things. Instead, the game's greatest hitter (admittedly playing at well below 100 percent due to groin and abdominal injuries) and one of its top lefty sluggers struck out on a combined seven pitches, against setup man Junichi Tazawa and closer Koji Uehara, respectively.
Here's video evidence of that opportunity being whiffed away:
All in all, the Tigers left seven men on base in Game 3 and have tallied 25 through the first three contests. The Red Sox, by comparison, have been so shut down offensively that they've left "only" 16 hanging.
And that's what has to be so scary for Detroit. At some point, one imagines, the Red Sox offense will wake up, or at least start to stir. And when it does, what then? Because, again, as impossible as it is to imagine a scenario in which Detroit's elite arms pitch any better, it's also impossible to imagine a scenario in which the Red Sox offense—the best in baseball during the season—could struggle this much.
Have the Tigers missed their chance to win the ALCS?
This is still the same team that triple-slashed .277/.349/.446, posted an MLB-high .795 OPS and scored an MLB-best 5.3 runs per game. In the division series, Boston went .286/.390/.414 for an .803 OPS and 6.5 runs per.
This round? Try .133/.228/.222 for a .450 OPS and 2.3 runs per game.
With at least two games still to play in this ALCS, there's a pretty good chance that, even against Doug Fister in Game 4 and Sanchez in Game 5, the Red Sox will see some progression to the mean in the form of an uptick in offense.
What's worse is that Detroit lost its initial outing of this series on its own turf, meaning the Tigers can no longer advance without avoiding a return trip to Boston. The Red Sox might have lost Game 1 at Fenway Park, but they were 53-28 there during the season—that was tops in the AL—and a raucous Boston crowd would only make things that much more challenging for the Tigers.
In more than a few ways, it was fitting that the lights went out, albeit temporarily, at Comerica Park during Game 3. If the Tigers can't turn the power back on before the Red Sox do, it might be lights out for Detroit. For good.