When the ball sailed over the Monster, it took Torii Hunter’s plans with it.
He had played 17 major league seasons, been to five All-Star Games, and gone to the playoffs seven times, but the World Series always had eluded him.
When he signed a two-year deal with the Detroit Tigers in the offseason, he saw it as his best opportunity.
They had been to the American League Championship Series the past two seasons. This year made three.
Their pitching staff seemingly held every ace in the deck from a Cy Young/MVP in Justin Verlander to a 21-game winner in Max Scherzer, to an AL ERA leader in Anibal Sanchez.
The best hitter in the game, the first player to win the Triple Crown since LBJ was in office, Miguel Cabrera, was in the middle of their lineup, and one of the league’s best sluggers was right behind him in Prince Fielder.
It was a team with every necessary ingredient for the postseason.
Then, with Shane Victorino’s whack at a Jose Veras curveball that produced a grand slam in ALCS Game 6 Saturday night, it all went out the window.
“Your heart just drops,” Hunter told reporters. “You see it, it’s like a pop-up. The ball just barely getting over the Monster. In most stadiums, it’s an out, but here it’s a homer and he got the job done. He came through when they needed him and got the big hit and it was a crushing blow.”
It was a mistake pitch just moments after a mistake in the infield in a game.
“We made mistakes,” Hunter said. “You make mistakes in the postseason, that’s what happens. They’re magnified and guys take advantage of it and they did that and that’s what they should do.”
Victorino’s slam pushed the Red Sox to a 5-2 victory and their first World Series since 2007, and at the same time made for another disappointing ending for the Tigers.
For a team that had come painfully close to a championship each of the past three years, it was another missed opportunity. But at 38 years old, it cut deeper for Hunter, who can count the grains of sand left in his hourglass.
“It’s tough for me, the door is closing,” Hunter said. “Same old song. Same song.”
What the Tigers banked on came through.
Their pitching never failed them. In the first two games, Sanchez and Scherzer both took no-hit bids into the sixth inning.
In Game 3, Verlander struck out 10 in eight innings.
“Normally if you pitch the way we pitched in this series, you would probably think that you had won,” Tigers manager Jim Leyland said.
“You work so hard, you work your whole offseason all the way through your whole season to be able to execute as a team, we just came up short,” said Scherzer, who took the loss in Game 6. “It’s just frustrating when things don’t go your way. You just try to learn and move on and hope you get another shot at this.”
Verlander was able to put a difficult regular season behind him and morph into a nearly unhittable force in the postseason.
Had the Tigers been able to get to a Game 7, they would have gladly put their fate in his hands.
“I don’t look back at this season with any regret,” Verlander said. “The whole season was a grind for me and I told you guys that I was going to figure it out for the playoffs and I did and that was not easy for me. There was a lot of work that went into that and I was happy I was able to do that.
“As far as losing, obviously, if you don’t win it all I think there’s always a little bit of regret looking back at it. To get close, this is our third year in a row coming this far and to not be able to win it all, it hurts, but it’s also our third year in a row getting this far. That’s pretty impressive in and of itself.”
Bulletproof pitching couldn’t overcome an offense short-circuited by injuries and slumps. Cabrera hadn’t been at 100 percent since midseason and it showed. He hit .273 in the ALCS with a home run and four RBIs, but a groin injury robbed him of mobility in the field and on the basepaths and of power at the plate (the homer was his only extra-base hit of the series).
The postseason continued to puzzle Fielder, who finished the series 4 for 22, and drew boos from fans at Comerica Park who had grown tired of hoping for long, majestic homers and instead getting quick, hapless ground balls.
“Sports are a funny thing,” Scherzer said. “All you can do is try your best. Everybody was out there competing as hard as they possibly could. Playing through injuries with Miggy, you name it. So obviously that’s frustrating for us, but we’re not going to take anything away from what the Red Sox were able to accomplish in this series.”
After winning 95 games in 2011 and losing to Texas in the ALCS, then reaching the World Series last season only to be swept by the Giants, the Tigers entered the season facing equal amounts of expectations and pressure.
“When you get to this point in the year, the expectations are always high,” Verlander said. “They were as high coming into the spring, about as high as they could possible be. But once you get to the playoffs, it’s a grind and you can’t say, ‘OK, we’re going to make it to the World Series.’ You don’t just say that and end up there. You’ve got to play the games.
“In my opinion, these were the two best teams in the American League and it was one hell of a series. Obviously, it’s unfortunate for us it didn’t go our way, but it was a grudge match.”Julian Benbow can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.