DETROIT — As darkness fell Tuesday night on this broken city, steam rose from cracked manhole covers and the homeless squatted on streets where hope seemed as scarce as spare change.
Out on Woodward Avenue, a long line drive away from Comerica Park, a neon sign flashed in front of St. John’s Episcopal Church, calling the flock to worship.
“Pray here for the Tigers,’’ the sign said.
The next service begins Wednesday at 12:15 p.m. Maybe then some Tigers fan will beseech the baseball gods to explain how Detroit’s starting pitchers could submit three of the most phenomenal performances in postseason history over the first three games of the American League Championship Series and manage to eke out only a single win.
“I can’t believe it, it’s crazy,’’ said Tigers outfielder Torii Hunter. “We have great pitching over here, but what can you do? You have great pitching on both sides.’’
Which explains how the Sox managed to stymie the Tigers in Game 3, riding Mike Napoli’s seventh-inning home run to a 1-0 victory and a 2-1 advantage in the ALCS.
With Justin Verlander’s mastery Tuesday, Detroit’s first three starters have all but shackled the Red Sox, allowing only two runs over 21 innings while holding them to an .087 batting average (6 for 69) and sending Boston batters back to the dugout 35 times on strikeouts.
In following Anibal Sanchez in Game 1 and Max Scherzer in Game 2, Verlander rounded out a Tigers trio whose dominance has rivaled the best of all time in opening a postseason series, nearly all for naught.
Before Jonny Gomes reached on an infield single off Verlander in the fifth inning, the Tigers had a chance to extend their streak of no-hitting their opponents over the first five innings to four straight postseason games. Verlander had no-hit the A’s for six innings in Game 5 of the AL Division Series before Sanchez held the Sox hitless for six innings in Game 1 of the ALCS and Scherzer no-hit them for 5⅔ innings in Game 2.
The Tigers also are on pace to break the League Championship Series record of 49 strikeouts, set by the Braves in 1991. Atlanta defeated Pittsburgh in seven games in the ‘91 Series, which featured spectacular pitching by both teams.
“Frustration’’ was on the lips of many in the Detroit clubhouse after the game. But catcher Alex Avila wasn’t buying it.
“I’m not really frustrated,’’ he said. Detroit’s starters “are pitching great,’’ Avila said, “and as long as they’re pitching great, we’re going to have a chance to win, so that’s really all that matters.’’
Chalk it up to the quirky magic of baseball, Tigers manager Jim Leyland suggested. Boston’s Jon Lester and John Lackey also were superb in Games 1 and 3, with Lackey shutting out the Tigers for 6⅔ innings in Game 3 before yielding to the bullpen for a combined shutout.
“Lester and Lackey pitched extremely well, too,’’ Leyland said. “The runs are pretty stingy. This is what it’s about in the postseason, good pitching.’’
Along with the bullpens, Leyland said, “It’s just terrific pitching.’’
Detroit’s sluggers, Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder, praised their starters while accepting part of the blame for the team’s futility. Sanchez has mustered Detroit’s only win in the series.
“It’s been awesome,’’ Fielder said of Detroit’s starters. “But we haven’t been able to give them any runs. It’s frustrating. We’ve just got to shake it off.’’
Cabrera said he swung at too many bad pitches from Lackey. He went hitless in four at-bats, with two strikeouts, the first against Lackey, the other against Junichi Tazawa.
“We had our opportunities, but we didn’t do our jobs,’’ Cabrera said. “We need to move forward and win [Wednesday].’’
The bottom line, Avila said, is that anything can happen in baseball, including unrewarded excellence.
“You’re going to get games like that,’’ he said. The Sox “have had tremendous games by their pitchers, too. I can’t be frustrated at all. It’s turning out to be a great series. It should be enjoyed by everybody.’’
Correction: This story incorrectly stated that Max Scherzer had registered the Tigers’ only win of the series. Anibal Sanchez earned the win. It also incorrectly stated that Miguel Cabrera’s second strikeout came against Koji Uehara. It came against Junichi Tazawa.