If you're the Tigers, do you tip your cap or grit your teeth? You were right there, on the verge of eliminating the vaunted, villainous Yankees in your home park -- just as you did, almost five years to the day, in the 2006 American League Division Series. You had a raucous Comerica Park crowd behind you, and a guy who posted a 5.20 ERA over the last two seasons on the mound in front of you. A guy the Yankees had planned to avoid in this best-of-five set, before Game 1 rain showers sent them scrambling.
But the Tigers let A.J. Burnett -- and, therefore, the Yankees -- off the hook and off the mat. And now this series is headed back to the Bronx for a decisive Game 5, which takes place Thursday night. More anxiety. More tension. More Jimmy Fallon commercials. It's all possible because the Tigers, thanks to the lack of clutch hitting from the offense, lack of timely sink from Rick Porcello, and lack of luck and lack of life displayed at large in Tuesday night's 10-1 loss, squandered a golden opportunity to put this baby away and start looking toward Texas. "We had our shot," manager Jim Leyland said. And they did not make the most of it. Yes, you tip your cap to Burnett, whose breaking ball improved as the night wore on and who silenced, however briefly, his many doubters and critics. Burnett allowed just a run on four hits with four walks in 5 2/3 innings. By any standard, he was solid. By his own? Well, ship the game ball to Cooperstown. When he had promised to "let A.J. loose," it was difficult to know if that was to be perceived as a threat to the Tigers or the Yankees. Now we know ... I think. And yes, you tip your cap to Curtis Granderson, the former Tiger and current Tiger tormentor, who made two center-field receptions suitable for framing. But you grit your teeth, too. You grit them because, rather than going for the big inning against a guy notorious for coughing them up, you opted for small ball in the first. Leadoff man Austin Jackson walked. Good start. But Ramon Santiago, presumably at the behest of Jim Leyland, tried to bunt him over. Bad move. This is no news flash, but Burnett can be, well, a little wild. And he proved it with that leadoff walk. At that early juncture, the Tigers should have been making him earn his outs, not handing them over because of a sudden, inexplicable urge to play small ball. Santiago popped his bunt up, eliminating himself and, worse, not advancing the runner. It was a waste of an at-bat. Jackson wound up stealing second and moving to third on a Delmon Young groundout. He would end up stranded there, after Miguel Cabrera was intentionally walked and Victor Martinez drew a walk of his own. Don Kelly ripped a line drive on a low fastball, but Granderson hauled it in with a circus catch in center for the final out. That catch saved Burnett at least three runs. Kelly might have even turned that into an inside-the-park grand slam, had Granderson not made the grab. His diving haul of a Jhonny Peralta fly ball for the final out of the sixth was just as impressive. Go on, grit those teeth for the Grandy Man. Granderson would hurt the Tigers with his bat, too, coming through with a run-scoring double when he came up with runners on first and second and one out in the fifth. Such clutch hitting was nowhere to be found on the Tigers' side. Witness the fourth. Martinez went deep with a leadoff shot to make it 2-1, and Peralta doubled with one out. But Alex Avila, invisible all series, struck out looking. And Wilson Betemit, equally empty in the contribution category, struck out swinging on three pitches, the last one a curveball in the dirt. So much for the rally. And enter those gritted teeth again. In the end, it's all about execution, and the Tigers did very little of it in this game's decisive innings. This became a laugher of a ballgame when the Yanks tacked six runs onto their lead in the eighth, but the listlessness displayed by Detroit in the innings prior made that outburst seem unnecessary. The game was effectively put away in the fifth, when Porcello couldn't get his 0-2 pitch down to Granderson, who made him pay. But the real payment comes Thursday night at Yankee Stadium, in the form of Game 5. It's a game they'll still approach with confidence, especially with Doug Fister on the hill. But it's a game that might not have happened had the Tigers pounced on Burnett, like so many others have. Had Porcello been just a little more sharp. And yes, had Granderson's glove not been so glowing. The Tigers obviously won't have much time to reflect on what went wrong in what could have/should have been a coronation at Comerica. They'll just have to grit their teeth and go forward.
Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his columns and his blog, CastroTurf, and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.