Anatomy of a meltdown

  • Jim Caple [ARCHIVE]
  • ESPN.com | October 14, 2013

Torii Hunter Al Bello/Getty ImagesIn an instant Game 2 changed -- the Tigers' fortunes sank with Torii Hunter as fans in Fenway erupted.

BOSTON -- Some images are equivalent to a thousand words. Others are equivalent to the entire works of William Shakespeare, J.K. Rowling and a winter's worth of sports talk show debate.

Take a look at the above photo. It tells the tale of Sunday's epic Game 2 of the American League Championship Series. In the foreground of the photo you can see the upraised legs of Detroit Tigers right fielder Torii Hunter as he tumbles into the bullpen after a desperate attempt to catch a fly ball smashed by Boston Red Sox slugger David Ortiz. Right behind Hunter you see the upraised arms of a Boston police officer celebrating the fact that Hunter did not catch the ball, which landed in the bullpen for a game-tying grand slam.

That poor old ski jumper crashing on Wide World of Sports can be officially retired. This moment is the new thrill of victory and the agony of defeat. The only thing missing was a distraught Tigers fan in the background tearing his hair out and cursing manager Jim Leyland for bringing in Joaquin Benoit to face Ortiz.

Jim Leyland
AP Photo/Elise AmendolaHanding the ball to Benoit in the eighth backfired in a big way.

Yes, technically, Big Papi's grand slam only tied the game in the eighth inning. It was Jarrod Saltalamaccia's run-scoring single in the bottom of the ninth that won it. But realistically, that grand slam is what won the game. With one pitch, Ortiz turned around the entire series.

The Red Sox were trailing 5-1 and on the verge of getting on the plane to Detroit down two games to none. They had been embarrassed by the Tigers' starter again, with Max Scherzer no-hitting them into the sixth inning -- the second consecutive postseason game a Detroit pitcher has done so to an opponent -- and striking out 13 in seven innings.

But, as manager Jim Leyland said after Game 1, the Catch-22 of a power pitcher who strikes out a lot of hitters is he also throws a lot of pitches, especially against the Red Sox. Scherzer threw 108 pitches over seven innings -- "He was spent," Leyland said -- and the Detroit manager went to his bullpen. And that's when things got interesting.

Asked the value of his postseason experience and heroics, Ortiz said, "I tell you what, man, the postseason is something that works both ways for you. It can go well if you stay calm. Or it can go bad if you try to overdo things."

Very true. And Leyland, one of the best managers in the game, tried to overdo things Sunday.

Channeling his inner Tony La Russa -- but with no success whatsoever -- Leyland used four relievers to face seven batters in the eighth inning, and five relievers to retire a total of three batters (not a good ratio). He used Jose Veras for only two batters. He used lefty Drew Smyly for only one batter (whom he walked) even though Smyly is fairly effective against right-handers and Ortiz was coming up soon.

Obviously, the pitchers share the blame for not getting the job done. But the move that backfired the most on Leyland was bringing in Benoit to replace Al Alburquerque and face Ortiz with the bases loaded.

Closers are supposed to be able to save the day in the late innings, but Benoit is no Mariano Rivera. And lefty Phil Coke was available in the pen as well but Leyland said he hadn't pitched in a big game in a while so decided to go with Benoit. "Benoit is our guy against lefties and we felt he gave us the best chance to get the out," Leyland said.

Boston manager John Farrell said he understood the move -- "Benoit has recorded four-out saves a few times this year already. He's going to probably go with his best reliever in that situation" -- but he also pointed out that Ortiz has studied Benoit extensively. Then again, Ortiz studies everybody and how they try to get him out.

Torii Hunter
AP Photo/Charlie RiedelTorii Hunter went over the wall in an attempt to grab Ortiz's homer.

Which is why pitchers so often do not get him out.

"Coming against Benoit right there, I felt something good was going to happen," Jarrod Saltalamacchia said. "I think everyone knew something good was going to happen."

Something good did happen -- if you're a Red Sox fan. Something horrible happened if you root for the Tigers. Something wonderful happened if you simply love baseball.

Ortiz is one of the greatest clutch hitters of his generation. He has had some of the biggest hits in Boston history. And now he was up there again, with the bases loaded and the Fenway fans screaming in anticipation.

"You don't want to face David Ortiz in that situation," Hunter said. "Everybody in the whole world knows he can beat you."

He did. Benoit threw Ortiz one pitch, a changeup away. Ortiz reached out and drilled it to deep right-center. Hunter raced after it, leaped at the fence and sailed into the bullpen after the ball.

"I was trying my best to stop that ball from going over the fence," Hunter said. "I sacrifice my body if I have to. … I thought I had a bead on it. The next thing I knew, I was falling over the fence. I don't know what really happened."

David Ortiz
Robert Deutsch/USA TODAY SportsOrtiz's grand slam was the third in postseason history to tie a game.

What happened is the ball landed in the bullpen for a home run while Hunter landed on "my shoulder, neck, head." And as players rushed to help Hunter back to his feet, Ortiz circled the bases while the crowd and his teammates went wild.

"It seemed like old hat for Dave," catcher David Ross said. "I would have been like a little school girl running around the bases if I had would have done that. And he trotted around like it was nothing."

Well, it is old hat. This was the fifth time he tied or gave the Sox the lead in the eighth inning or later in the postseason.

After that, you knew the Red Sox were going to win. They scored the game-winner in the ninth on a single, a throwing error, a wild pitch and Saltalamaccia's hit off Rick Porcello, who didn't retire a batter.

And now the two teams travel to Detroit where the series resumes tied 1-1. The Red Sox are riding high, carried on the shoulders of Big Papi. The Tigers are bruised physically (Hunter) and emotionally (Benoit). Asked how it feels to have things turn around so quickly, Hunter merely shook his head. "What can you do. I'm all talked out."

Fair enough. Let the images tell the story.

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