BOSTON — Before Thursday night’s fifth game of the American League Championship Series, a few of the pre-teen children of the Detroit Tigers emerged from the showers in the home clubhouse wearing big-league towels like big leaguers, changing in front of big-league lockers like big leaguers. For Victor Jose Martinez, son of Victor Martinez the designated hitter, and Jadyn and Haven Fielder, sons of Prince Fielder the first baseman, this is home, and they act like it, running the TV remote, twirling in the chairs, lolling on the couch, carefree.
This used to be Prince Fielder’s role, 20 years ago, when his father, Cecil, occupied the home clubhouse at old Tiger Stadium. When you are the kid, and you have the run of a baseball clubhouse, what worries could you have?
But in the hour after that fifth game, Prince Fielder occupied that same place, and the worries engulfed him. He is 29, a father of two, a millionaire more times over than his home run champ of a father ever could have dreamed. And yet as the Tigers lost another one-run game to the Boston Red Sox, Fielder — who is relied upon to produce — did not. The boos came down, and came down hard, from the Comerica Park stands.
“They’re fans,” Fielder said quietly to a pack of reporters in that clubhouse late Thursday night. “I mean, it’s definitely not pleasant. But if that’s what they want to do, they can do it.”
The Tigers trail the Red Sox three games to two, and that they have reached this point in the playoffs with this contribution from Fielder — in a word, nothing — is in itself remarkable. In 37 postseason at-bats, he has one extra-base hit. From 2007 through this year, a seven-season span, only one player in baseball drove in more runs than Fielder, and that is his teammate Miguel Cabrera, who now bats in front of him in the lineup. But in the Tigers’ 10 postseason games to this point, Fielder hasn’t driven in a single run. He is mired in his least-productive period at the most important time.
“I’m just trying to hit the ball hard,” he said.
He is not. Since 2006, his first season as a starter, Fielder has never experienced a dry spell like this. In July of 2011, his final season with Milwaukee, he went 11 consecutive games without driving in a run. He finished the season with 120 RBI.
But this skid is two-fold. Fielder, who played all 162 games for the third straight year, failed to drive in a run for the final six regular-season games. His last RBI came nearly a month ago, on Sept. 22. Yet it is his postseason drought that has the fans most frustrated. In the sixth inning of Game 1 of the 2012 ALCS against the Yankees, Fielder singled off Andy Pettitte, driving in Austin Jackson. He has played 17 postseason games since then, and not driven in a single run.
“Little Leaguers that watch Major League Baseball, fans that watch Major League Baseball, players from other teams that watch the games . . . when they think of Prince Fielder, they obviously think about the power-hitting guy,” Tigers Manager Jim Leyland said Friday in a conference call with reporters. “He’s been a home run derby champion a couple times. He’s hit many, many home runs in his career so far. I know what he’s capable of doing.
“Nobody has asked Prince to hit home runs. I’ve always said as long as he produces runs — which he’s done ever since he’s been here — I don’t care how they come by. But the other average person thinks of him as a home run guy, so when you don’t have a home run, in this particular case they start to focus more on that because that’s how you think of him.”
It is a fair way to think of him, because his 255 homers since 2007 are also the second-most in baseball, trailing only Cabrera, and they are the reason he signed a nine-year, $214 million contract prior to the 2012 season — spurning, among others, the Washington Nationals. His performance, too, is a good predictor of how the Tigers are playing. In Detroit’s wins in 2013, Fielder hit .314 with a .400 on-base percentage and a .525 slugging percentage. In losses, those numbers drop precipitously: .229/.307/.360.
The quality of his at-bats, too, has been mostly poor. In the eighth inning of a 1-0 loss in Game 3, he struck out against Boston closer Koji Uehara on three pitches, the last a splitter in the dirt. After Cabrera singled in a run with two outs in the fifth inning of Game 5, putting pressure on Boston starter Jon Lester, Fielder swung at the first pitch he saw and bounced out to second, drawing those boos. Indeed, in his eight at-bats over the past two games, he has made outs on the first pitch five times, and he is simply not driving the ball. Fielder has made 15 outs in this series. One was a flyball to the outfield, another a line drive, another a popup. The others: eight groundouts and four strikeouts.
“We’ve been fortunate enough, for the most part, to keep the ball on the ground with him,” Boston Manager John Farrell said Friday.
Leyland understands the importance of getting Fielder going. He said Friday that he would not move his first baseman down in the lineup. He will run him out there one more time, with the season in the balance. But with that mob of reporters around him as Thursday night became Friday morning, with the boos still fresh, it was clear that he isn’t a kid, and this isn’t the time of year to be carefree.