DETROIT -- When it was over, when the second-guessers were officially free to pick apart the stolen-base attempt gone awry and the intentional walk run amuck and when the winnable game was decidedly not won by the home nine, Tigers manager Jim Leyland looked past the pain and articulated the most accurate conclusion one could draw from a four-hour Game 4 of the American League Championship Series. "This," the long-tenured Leyland said on Wednesday, "is one of the best baseball games I've ever been involved in." Hey, the series hasn't been too shabby, either.
And in this taut and tension-filled tussle, you give the nod for Best Supporting Ensemble to Leyland's Tigers, who have made this a truly captivating collision in both the figurative and literal (witness Mike Napoli v. Miguel Cabrera, circa eighth inning) sense. A couple Nelson Cruz extra-baggers in extra innings have affected the aggregate, but the fact of the matter is that each and every inning thus far in this series has been an emotional affair. The stars of the show, clearly, have been the Texas Rangers, who find themselves on the cusp of a second straight World Series appearance, because they are more ample in arms, more able in bodies and, perhaps, more at peace under pressure. "We played a lot of big games last year in the postseason," second baseman Ian Kinsler said. "We went to Game 5 with Tampa. When you play in New York, it's never small. And the games in San Francisco were tight games. That helps, and we're definitely using it to our advantage." Fortunately for the home viewer, though, the Tigers have given them everything they've got, and that includes the Advil and duct tape it's taken to keep the lineup in some semblance of intact. And when the skies cleared long enough to pull the tarp off and pull open the curtain for Game 4, two hours and 13 minutes after it was originally scheduled to begin, what we witnessed was, as Leyland said, as enthralling a ballgame as you'll ever see. You had Rick Porcello, seemingly silencing the masses who had clamored for Justin Verlander to start this tilt on short rest. You had Cabrera, coming through in the clutch yet again when Rangers starter Matt Harrison ill-advisedly opted to give him anything resembling a strike in the third, with a hobbled Victor Martinez on deck. That added up to a two-run double that gave the Tigers a 2-0 lead. And given the momentum accrued in Cabrera's clutch hit in the fifth inning a night earlier, it was no stretch to assume that lead might well stick. The Rangers, though, are relentless. Big of bat and fleet of foot, they can create the kind of nightmare that erupted for Porcello in the sixth. Kinsler doubled home David Murphy with one out, then swiped third with a headfirst slide just slightly ahead of Alex Avila's throw. Elvis Andrus singled him home to tie it, and Andrus' presence at first spooked Porcello into an errant pickoff attempt that put him in scoring position. The Rangers capitalized on an RBI single from Michael Young to take the 3-2 lead. Comerica Park went quiet. Now, at this point, you might map out any number of potential scenarios, from the realistic (the Rangers locking down the lead late) to the impossible (Chet Lemon coming out of the crowd and out of retirement to deliver a huge hit). But the truly improbable is, of course, what actually transpired in the seventh. And it transpired in the form of Brandon Inge -- with two outs, Alexi Ogando dealing and the count 0-2 -- smacking the game-tying solo shot. As you probably know, Inge hit just three homers all year (though, in fairness, two were walk-off winners). As you might not know, Ogando had given up a home run in an 0-2 count exactly never. Had Leyland opted to pinch-hit the left-handed-hitting Don Kelly for Inge in that situation, not a soul would have raised an eyebrow. But Inge, briefly banished to Triple-A Toledo mere months ago, came through, because that's just the sort of thing that happens in an especially unpredictable October. The Tigers were clearly destined to win this one after that blast, weren't they? Rangers manager Ron Washington gave them the obvious opportunity to do so, making the brave (or, some would say, boneheaded) call to intentionally walk Cabrera with the bases empty and one out in the eighth inning of a tie game. How many previous times had a player been intentionally walked with the bases empty in postseason history? Just nine. It happened to Barry Bonds four times, Alex Rodriguez twice and Greg Luzinski, Frank Thomas and Albert Pujols once apiece. A few of those walks came in a tie game, but none came with one out. "We tried to pitch around Cabrera twice, and he got us," Washington said. "So this time, I wasn't taking any chance. And it almost came back and bit me." Naturally, though, the decision was just crazy enough to work out wonderfully. Just not in the way anybody imagined. Martinez sent a single through the hole on the right side of the infield -- a hole that only existed because Young was holding that speed machine Cabrera at first. Cabrera scampered to third, and the Tigers had runners on the corners with one out. You don't pinch-run for your best hitter in a tie game, particularly with a depleted bench, so Cabrera remained at third as Delmon Young came to the plate. Young sent a fly ball to Cruz in right. Cabrera tagged up. You had to send him in that situation, particularly with a struggling Avila on deck, but, man, was he slow. In came the throw. And a beautiful throw it was, with catcher Mike Napoli's perfect footwork putting him in position to block the plate and absorb the 270-pound blow to the body. A huge out. "He came up firing," Napoli said of Cruz, "and gave me a good one-hop." By the way, do you know how many assists to home from right field Cruz had this season? Why, none, of course. Plus, it was also the Rangers' first postseason outfield assist. So Washington was saved, but Leyland wouldn't be as lucky later. First, there was the matter of Austin Jackson trying to swipe second with one out in the 10th. He was thrown out on a bullet from Napoli, and that robbed the Tigers of the possibility of Cabrera coming to the plate with a man on. Jackson was running on his own, but Leyland later said he endorsed the decision "100 percent." Then, in the 11th, with closer Jose Valverde on the mound, Josh Hamilton at second and one out, Leyland intentionally walked an ailing Adrian Beltre, who was 0-for-4 with two strikeouts, to set up a potential double play. And the rest was misery for the Tigers. Napoli singled home the go-ahead run, then Cruz, a.k.a. "Mr. 11th Inning," put it on ice with a three-run shot off the Big (or is it Baked?) Potato. So there's your 7-3 final, but the route to get there was an engrossing one, befitting of this series at large. "An absolutely tremendous series," Leyland said. Unfortunately, for Leyland's club, it's a series on the brink of elimination, though Verlander certainly has some say in the matter. The Tigers need nothing short of a complete game out of him in Game 5, because their two-armed bullpen is shot. The lack of a third reliable right-hander beyond Valverde and Joaquin Benoit (who are "running on fumes and heart," as Leyland put it) has drastically damaged Detroit, and that's been the biggest difference in this series. The Rangers, clearly, are the deeper, better team. Yet even with its lopsided won-loss ledger, this has been a gem of an ALCS.
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.