It was an eventful weekend in Detroit. The Tigers won the first two games of their ALDS match-up with the Oakland A’s, and the manner in which they did so was pure theater. A lot happened at Comerica Park between six p.m. Saturday and 3:30 p.m. Sunday. Some of it was predictable — Miguel Cabrera and Justin Verlander showed why they’re leading candidates to capture the MVP and Cy Young — but much of it was downright remarkable. Here are looks at five of the notable storylines.
“It was just emotion. I was happy. When you do something good, you feel happy.” — Al Alburquerque
By now, everyone knows that 26-year-old Tigers’ reliever Al Alburquerque planted a kiss on the baseball before under-handing it to first base to end the top half of a pressure-packed ninth inning. It was a key play in a wild-and-wacky Game Two and opinions are mixed on whether his actions were a case of innocent, youthful exuberance or just as under-handed as his toss.
Not surprisingly, reactions followed party lines. Asked about it after the game, Gerald Laird said “He’s just young and was excited. He didn’t mean anything by it.” Phil Coke’s response was, “I don’t think it’s something that should be viewed as somebody getting showed up. I didn’t think that at all.” Another teammate, Max Scherzer, said, “He’s on a different planet sometimes. I think that’s evident, with him kissing a ball during a game, during the playoffs. It’s just his personality.”
The opposition saw it differently. In a subdued Oakland clubhouse, outfielder Josh Reddick said, “I didn’t think it was very professional. It was something that should be kept off the field and not in between the lines. I don’t think it should happen.” Other A’s players mostly shied away from the question, although it was obvious they weren‘t amused. Catcher George Kottaras said he didn’t see it happen, and that his teammates were mostly focused on going out to the field for the bottom of the inning.
Almost lost in the hullabaloo is the fact that Alburquerque make a good pitch to a dangerous hitter — Yoenis Cespedes — and also make the play. According to Coke, it wasn’t a given.
“I’ve played catch with Albuquerque a number of times, and sometimes he’ll mis-catch the ball,” explained Coke. “I was really excited to see him catch it. In that situation, if he catches it and kisses it, and throws it to first base, I’m all for it. Emotion is part of the game.”
GEHRIG JOHN NESHEK
“Please pray for my family. Tonight my wife & I lost our first & only son 23 hours after he was born with no explanation.” — Pat Neshek, Twitter post, October 4.
The emotions Alburquerque felt were nothing compared to what Pat Neshek experienced on Saturday night. Just days after tragically losing his newborn son, the A’s right-hander took the mound in the seventh inning. He retired both batters he faced and upon returning to the dugout was hugged by teammates. It was as brave and emotionally-charged as any relief outing in baseball history.
“I can’t even image what he was feeling and the emotions going through him,” said teammate Brandon Moss. “I would never want to know, nor wish that on anybody. The way that he came out and pitched, and kept his emotions in check, speaks a lot about what kind of man he is. It was pretty impressive. I don’t really have any words for it.”
The A’s took the field this weekend wearing a patch with the initials “GJN” in honor of Gehrig John Neshek.
CABRERA AND ELECTRICTY
“The World Series — every game I played in — is like the first day you were in the big leagues. You can’t really feel your feet. That whole  Series was very exciting.” — former Tiger Larry Herndon
Befitting postseason baseball, Comerica Park was both cold and electric on Saturday night and Sunday afternoon. The temperature hovered around 50 degrees, but most fans were too revved up to care. The seats were a whirl of white towels every time the Tigers threatened, and Miguel Cabrera at bats were greeted with chants of “MVP, MVP.”
The American League MVP award was a hot topic among the contingent of reporters covering the series. Cabrera seems to be the consensus pick. Everyone I talked to showed great respect for Mike Trout’s season, although there was an occasional misguided comment. One reporter [from outside the Detroit market] told me that anyone who doesn’t vote for the Triple-Crown-winning Cabrera deserves to have their voting privileges revoked.
The atmosphere at Comerica Park — and it promises to be the same in Oakland — was as heated as the MVP debate. Players from both teams were commenting on it, with Tigers speedster Quintin Berry providing the best quote.
“There’s so much energy and electricity here with these fans,” Berry said after Game One. “It’s packed out. It’s cold for everybody, so to see them out here, riding it out with you, is pretty special. Usually I get a little energy drink, but today I was not going to do it. I had plenty of energy, man, plenty of energy.”
“I’m definitely not a fan of him right now. I mean, I respect him for sure, but when you’re facing a guy like that, you’re definitely not a fan. He’s out there trying to dominate you.” — Brandon Moss
The reigning Cy Young Award winner pitched like one on Friday night. After allowing a lead-off home run to Coco Crisp, he proceeded to blow away Oakland hitters for seven innings. It was classic Verlander, and a performance that was presciently predicted by a Detroit scribe. Shortly before game time, he suggested that Verlander will give up his usual first-inning home run and then dominate.
Moss struck out three times against Verlander, and according to the A’s clean-up hitter, the right-hander was dealing.
“You have to tip your hat,” said Moss. “I got maybe one pitch from him over the middle of the plate. He painted the outside corner with every pitch he had, all night. No one in here is going to do well against him if he’s doing that. Obviously, the only guy who did do well against him was Coco. If a guy goes out and pitches like that, that’s going to be the score of the game. You have to be ready for 100 all the time, and then he’s got that 88-mph dive-ball that he throws. He is who he is.”
“If it was going to go over the fence it was going to go over the fence. I was just hoping it wouldn’t.” — Joaquin Benoit
Verlander is Verlander and the Tigers bullpen is… a big problem. The demonstrative Jose Valverde — are his antics not more objectionable than Alburquerque’s smooch? — has been effective closing out games. The set-up role has been a different story.
Joaquin Benoit coughed up an eighth-inning lead on Sunday — a wild pitch tied the game and Josh Reddick’s home run put the A’s in front — and he nearly blew Saturday‘s game. What would have been a game-tying blast by Moss was caught by Andy Dirks in front of the right-centerfield wall.
“It’s a big yard,” said Moss. “I knew it had a chance, but I also knew he was going to have a chance to rob it. I saw him about to climb the wall. He didn’t have to. It just stayed in the park.
“He’s got a good changeup and I was a little out in front of it,” continued Moss. “I recognized it when he threw it, but still didn’t quite stay back far enough. It just got to the end of the bat. You try to take the best swing you can, and it stinks that it didn’t go out.”
Tigers fans are aware that a stinky bullpen could be their downfall. I ventured out to the left-field bleachers for the seventh inning of Friday night’s game, and the hot topic was Verlander’s pitch count and how no one could be counted on to protect the lead. If the Tigers are to go far in the postseason, they need to fix that problem. Not doing so could be the kiss of death to their World Series aspirations.