DETROIT — Minutes after the Texas Rangers had sauntered back into the visitor’s clubhouse at Comerica Park on Wednesday night, someone had already taped the picture to a shelf in Mike Napoli’s locker. Miguel Cabrera, the Detroit Tigers star, lay on the ground with legs in the air, knocked down and trying to get up. Napoli stood over him, glaring in his direction.
The defining image from the defining play of the Rangers’ 7-3, 11-inning victory described the state of the American League Championship Series. After four tense hours — “one of the best baseball games I’ve ever been involved in,” Tigers Manager Jim Leyland said — the Rangers pushed the Tigers to the brink of elimination, taking a 3-1 series lead.
The Tigers and Rangers played desperate, classic baseball until the 11th inning, when closer Jose Valverde fell off the high wire he treads so expertly. As Valverde attempted a fifth max-effort inning in three days, Napoli ripped a go-ahead RBI single with one out. Nelson Cruz, Game 2’s extra-inning, grand-slam hero, sealed the outcome by following with a three-run homer to left field.
Cruz and Napoli had each contributed defensive plays that made their offensive heroics possible. Cruz’s fourth home run of the ALCS came three innings after his laser throw home from deep right field, which Napoli caught and held on to when Cabrera tried to bowl him over.
“Tonight,” Rangers Manager Ron Washington said, “it was ‘Thank you, Nelson Cruz.’ ”
The play kept the score tied and allowed Cruz’s blast to drive a spike into Detroit’s season. The Tigers will send presumptive AL Cy Young winner Justin Verlander to the mound Thursday, but the banged-up Tigers may have reached their breaking point.
“We hope it takes something out of them,” Texas reliever Mike Adams said. “I’m losing years off my life just watching these games.”
The second extra-inning game this series, delayed 2 hours 13 minutes by rain, included sudden turns and desperate twists. Rangers reliever Scott Feldman earned the win pitching one day after throwing 41 / 3 innings. Brandon Inge, who spent part of this year in Toledo, smashed a game-tying homer on an 0-2 pitch with two outs in the seventh.
It even included a decision to willfully put the winning run on base with the bases empty. When Cabrera came to bat in the eighth inning, he had already punished the Rangers once for pitching to him, blasting a two-run, two-out double in the third inning. Tuesday night, he had drilled a solo home run and laced an RBI double.
The two hitters behind him Wednesday, Victor Martinez and Delmon Young, were both playing through strains to their midsection. So with one out, the score tied and the bases empty in the eighth inning, the Rangers made a rare concession: they had Adams intentionally walk Cabrera.
“I was surprised,” Adams said. “I was ready to face him. I was a little bit shocked. I know what the numbers [are], but he’s bound to get out a couple times. I wanted to face him. . . . It almost bit us a little bit.”
Martinez, playing with a strained rib cage muscle, bounced a single through the right side, and Cabrera barreled all the way to third base. The go-ahead run stood 90 feet away from home with one out.
Young, another injured Tiger, playing with an oblique strain, fouled off two pitches and then lofted a fly ball to deep right field. Cabrera crouched at third base. Cruz settled a few steps behind the ball so he could catch the fly while charging toward the plate to give his throw momentum. The ball smacked into his glove. Cabrera chugged.
Cruz unleashed a quick, strong throw that would have nailed almost any base runner. Cabrera ran slower than most any runner. He had barely made it 75 feet when Napoli caught Cruz’s bullet on one hop. Cabrera tried to force a collision with Napoli, who simply tagged him and rolled out of the way, then stood up and glared at Cabrera — the picture.
“Crucial time of the game,” Napoli said. “Nellie gave me a good throw, gave me enough time to brace and get low. Just a great play.”
Napoli erased the Tigers’ next chance to end the game, too. With one out in the 10th, Feldman brushed Austin Jackson’s jersey with an inside fastball. Ryan Raburn came to the plate, and Cabrera strode to the on-deck circle. Barring a double play, he would hit with a chance to win the game.
Or so it seemed. As Raburn hit, Jackson bolted to steal second. Behind the plate was Napoli, whom the Los Angeles Angels traded last winter because they deemed him an inferior defensive catcher. Napoli caught the pitch and fired to second in less than two seconds, an excellent release and throw. Jackson was out, and Cabrera’s time at bat had been imperiled.
“The play of the game, especially with Cabrera lurking around there,” Feldman said. “Nap bailed me out big-time. It’s hard for me to believe he was ever labeled as a bad defensive catcher.”
Jackson had chosen to steal on his own, and “I agreed with it 100 percent,” Leyland said.
“It was pretty close,” Jackson said. “He made a great throw. I thought I got a pretty good jump on him. He made a great throw, and he got me.”
When Raburn struck out, the game moved to the 10th. Cabrera dropped his bat and lingered in the on-deck circle for a moment before he grabbed his glove and headed to the field.
“It was very frustrating,” Jackson said. “We’ve got one of the best hitters in the game over there.”
He never got a chance to hit with the score tied. Instead the Rangers went to work against Valverde, who had pitched a 1-2-3 10th inning on “fumes and heart,” Leyland said. In the 11th, against the menacing heart of the Rangers’ lineup, he finally broke. Josh Hamilton hit a leadoff double, and after a strikeout and an intentional walk to Adrian Beltre, Napoli and Cruz struck.
A small celebration broke out in the Texas clubhouse, including the taping of that picture in Napoli’s locker. Thursday, the Tigers will turn to their ace in hopes of preventing the big celebration.