Detroit sneaks up on Zito, rolls on

The Baltimore Sun

OAKLAND, Calif. -- First, the Detroit Tigers pummeled the high-priced, high-profile New York Yankees.

Then they beat up a guy who could end up as a high-priced, high-profile Yankee.

In their first American League Championship Series appearance in nearly 20 years, the torrid Tigers pounded the Oakland Athletics and ace Barry Zito yesterday on their way to a 5-1 win in Game 1 of the ALCS.

They took the early series lead partially thanks to an A's team that was 0-for-13 with runners in scoring position.

"We were dodging bullets all night, from the get-go," Tigers manager Jim Leyland said. "From the first inning, we were pretty much in trouble all night. It's really hard to believe that the game ended with them only having one run. That won't happen again."

Early on it seemed likely that Zito, baseball's most coveted free-agent pitcher this winter, would be the night's story. He was, but in an unexpected way.

The left-hander retired the first eight batters in order with a nasty curveball that kept snapping and dropping at batters' knees. With the sold-out crowd of 35,655 noisily offering its approval, a postseason no-hit bid seemed possible.

The no-hitter, the shutout and Zito himself would soon unravel.

With two outs in the third, Tigers third baseman Brandon Inge hit a 2-1 changeup just inside the left-field foul pole for his first career postseason homer.

That's when Zito seemed to lose focus - and his control - as the free-swinging Tigers suddenly developed, well, Yankee-esque patience.

"For whatever reason, after that I just started to nitpick," Zito said.

Leadoff hitter Curtis Granderson doubled to right followed by two walks to load the bases. Tigers right fielder Magglio Ordonez then hit a sharp grounder to the left of sure-fielding third baseman Eric Chavez.

Chavez gloved the ball but couldn't hold on, allowing Granderson to score the second run.

A groundout ended the inning, but the Tigers struck for three more while chasing Zito in the fourth. Tigers catcher Ivan Rodriguez started the inning with a home run to deep right-center, the third league-championship homer of his career.

Craig Monroe followed with a walk - the third in six batters for the Tigers, who were 28th in the majors in drawing walks this season.

"We understand now that in order to get to guys we have to be able to be patient and get pitches to hit," Monroe said. "That's what we have learned."

Two batters later, Inge nearly had his second homer, smashing a run-scoring double that hit the top of the left-center wall.

Two more singles and Zito, head dropped, slunk back to the dugout, the 3 2/3 innings his shortest outing since Opening Day. It was the first time in seven postseason starts that he didn't at least make it into the sixth inning and the five earned runs were the most he had allowed in a postseason game.

"I just need better fastball command," Zito said. "If I can put the fastball where I want, it makes the off-speed stuff that much more effective. And that's why some changeups got hit tonight because the fastball didn't keep them honest."

The A's had a chance to quickly close the five-run gap in the bottom of the fourth when Frank Thomas drew a leadoff walk and Jay Payton doubled off the wall in left. Practically any other runner this side of Toronto's portly catcher Bengie Molina would have scored easily, but the hobbling Thomas stopped at third.

That's where he stayed.

Detroit starter Nate Robertson struck out the next three batters - including a hacking Nick Swisher on a 92-mph fastball well out of the strike zone - to strand the runners.

Robertson, who was hammered for seven runs in a loss to the Yankees in the Tigers' first game of the postseason, was shaky but effective against the A's. He allowed a base runner in each of the five innings he pitched, but three double plays wiped out the threats without yielding a run. The A's grounded into four double plays overall, setting a League Championship record.

"There's no need to panic," Thomas said. "We'll just come back [today] and find a way to push them in."

Not everything went smoothly for the Tigers, however.

Starting first baseman Sean Casey left the game after pulling up lame with a left calf injury on a groundout in the sixth. He'll miss tonight's game, and may not be able to play Friday, Leyland said.

championship series

American League

Detroit (Verlander 17-9) @Oakland (Loaiza 11-9), 8:19 tonight, FX

National League

St. Louis (Weaver 5-4) @New York (Glavine 15-7), 8:19 tonight, chs. 45, 5

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