Miguel Cabrera's performance in Game 3 of the World Series will be remembered for what he didn't do in the fifth inning: As he stepped to the plate with the bases loaded and two out, the Tigers needed a double from the best hitter in baseball to take the lead and maybe transform the series.
He popped out to shortstop.
But what happened two innings later revealed more about the extent of his recent struggles: On a 91-mph fastball from Tim Lincecum, Cabrera shattered his bat on a ground ball to shortstop -- the baseball equivalent of Yo-Yo Ma breaking his bow.
"I don't remember the last time he did that," Tigers infielder Ramon Santiago said after San Francisco's second consecutive 2-0 blanking of Detroit. "He stays so good inside the ball. He always sees the ball. Even when the pitch is inside, he stays square and hits the ball on the sweet spot."
That's not happening now. Not for Cabrera. Not for fellow star Prince Fielder. Not for many -- any? -- of their teammates. The Tigers' 3-0 deficit is every bit as catastrophic as it appears, after they became the first team since the 1966 Los Angeles Dodgers to be shut out in consecutive World Series games. After never trailing in their American League Championship Series sweep of New York, the Tigers have yet to take a lead against the Giants.
The mood in the dugout is precisely as one would imagine.
"Everybody knows we're kind of letting this one slip away," outfielder Quintin Berry said. "Guys are kind of down on themselves, because we know we could be playing way better than this. We've worked so hard to be better than this. Things aren't going well. You can see it on everybody's faces."
The normally genial Cabrera left Comerica Park after the game without speaking to reporters. If done out of frustration, that was ill-advised for one of the sport's biggest stars -- particularly on a day when he accepted the Hank Aaron Award from the legendary Aaron himself. Albert Pujols' similar no-comment after a loss in last year's World Series was criticized for the way it suggested a lack of accountability to fans and the media. The same applies here.
Of course, Pujols silenced his detractors by hitting three home runs in the very next game. The Tigers are left to hope that history repeats itself, because they are running out of other reasons to believe. Cabrera has one RBI in the World Series, and that came with the Giants already leading 6-0 in Game 1. Since then, he has one hit in seven at-bats while stranding four.
Fielder has been even worse, going 1-for-10 in the Series. He hasn't driven in a run in his past six postseason games. His most recent extra-base hit came in Game 4 of the American League Division Series against Oakland. That was more than two weeks ago.
"You've got to give them credit: They're in the World Series, too," said Fielder, who dutifully answered questions, still dressed in full uniform, to waves of reporters. "They're making good pitches when they have to and keeping us off balance.
"It's playoff baseball. Pitchers are hitting their spots, going right off the corner, on the corner. We haven't been able to square too many balls up."
That's the thing about October: At some point, the sluggers on every team -- except one -- utter the same words. Roll tape of Robinson Cano, Matt Holliday, Adam Jones and Josh Hamilton from the past several weeks. They all sound the same. This is the month when great bats turn to sawdust. In the end, pitching wins. You are left to hope that it's your pitching.
Still, it shocks the system to see Cabrera and Fielder in this state, so soon after they tasted champagne as AL champions. Just like the rest of their teammates, they have been late on fastballs they would have clobbered at other times during the year. More egregiously, they're missing mistakes. When Ryan Vogelsong hung a breaking ball to Cabrera in the fourth inning Saturday, he jerked it foul rather than swat it into the left-field seats.
Berry was left to lament two missed opportunities of his own. He misjudged Vogelsong's changeup as a fastball in the third inning, which resulted in an inning-ending double play ball with two men aboard. ("I killed that inning for us," he said afterward.) With the bases loaded and one out in the fifth, he swung at what would have been ball three and flipped the count back into Vogelsong's favor. He fanned on the next pitch, when a fly ball would have meant a run. "A little overanxious," he acknowledged.
The Tigers' five-day layoff after the ALCS partially explains the way Barry Zito, Madison Bumgarner and Vogelsong have carved through them. They are playing tight, which could be a byproduct of pressure or rust. Cabrera seemed unsure of himself in the batter's box in Game 3, a rarer sight than Lincecum with a buzz cut. But the Tigers, as badly out of rhythm as they may be, steadfastly refuse to say the downtime before the World Series is the reason.
"I don't think we could have worked any harder," Berry said. "With what we did, we pretty much went through a full day of spring training every day. People want to say rust. You have all those days off. But there's nothing possibly we could have done more to prepare for this. We are prepared. We just aren't playing the baseball we're capable of playing."
A large subset of October folklore celebrates the likes of David Freese, Edgar Renteria and David Eckstein, who outshone famous teammates to become World Series MVPs. But Game 3 wasn't designed to have a hero of that class. The baseball gods -- perhaps aware of criticisms leveled against them from Michiganders following Games 1 and 2 -- made certain that Cabrera ($141 million) and Fielder ($214 million) had chances commensurate with their paychecks.
Fielder's shot came in the first inning, after Cabrera slapped a seeing-eye single through the left side to put runners on first and second with one out. But Vogelsong baited him into rolling over a 2-1 changeup for the rally-killing double play. Cabrera's big moment came four innings later, with the white towels waving and 42,262 on their feet and limitless possibilities waiting on the other side of a base hit. But the ball did not leave the infield.
For the Tigers, the greatest shame is they have wasted stellar outings by starters Doug Fister and Anibal Sanchez in consecutive games. They must win Game 4 behind Max Scherzer for Justin Verlander to have a shot at redemption following the Panda-induced Game 1 nightmare. The state of affairs was perhaps best summarized by a T-shirt Fielder wore in the clubhouse late Saturday night: "DETROIT VS. EVERYBODY."
The Giants held a spirited team meeting when facing elimination in the first round against the Cincinnati Reds. It doesn't appear their World Series opponent will do the same. "That talk stuff is for 'Hoosiers' and the movies," Fielder said. "That's not real life." If the Tigers change their mind and look to sports cinema for inspiration, they may want to watch "Miracle" instead. That's the movie the Boston Red Sox screened before they rallied from a 3-0 deficit against New York in 2004 -- the first, last, and only time that has happened in postseason baseball.