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Unsung hero of Game 3? Detroit defense

By Dayn Perry | Baseball Writer
Miguel Cabrera, Alex Avila and the rest of the Tigers played outstanding defense in Game 3. (Getty Images)

DETROIT -- The reality is that the 2012 Tigers, for all their merits, don't play good defense.

In the regular season, they ranked next-to-last in the AL in defensive efficiency, which is the percentage of balls in play (i.e., batted balls in fair territory) that a defense converts into outs (unlike fielding percentage, it accounts for range). Adjust for park effects, and they're still 13th in the AL, ahead of only the Royals.

More playoff coverage
ALCS: Tigers vs. Yankees
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So the Tigers have a history of not playing strong defense behind their pitchers. In part, the Tigers as a team have thrived because their pitchers miss bats. During the regular season, Detroit hurlers ranked second in the AL in strikeout rate and strikeouts as a percentage of batters faced. The best way to paper over a bad defense is to prevent the ball from being put in play.

In Game 3, however, Justin Verlander didn't do that. In 8 1/3 innings pitched, he struck out a mere three batters (just the third time this season he's whiffed such a low number). So his defense was put to work.

In all, Verlander and Phil Coke allowed 19 balls in play, and just five went for hits. That comes to a defensive efficiency of .736. Over the full 2012 season, that would've led the majors by a comfortable margin.

That's an absurd comparison, of course: one game versus an entire season's worth of data. But it does speak to how well the Tigers fielded the ball within the context of Game 3. Not baked into those numbers are Alex Avila's and Miguel Cabrera's outstanding, ranging snags of foul balls early in the night. The infield defense, so problematic for so much of the year, also stepped up: 10 ground-ball outs.

In the clubhouse afterward, center fielder Austin Jackson and catcher Alex Avila -- the two players with the best views of the diamond -- spoke about the defense's strong night.

"He [Verlander] wasn't getting the swings and misses he usually does," said Jackson. "But when they did put it in play they didn't do much with it."

Jackson went to say that the Tigers in Game 3 weren't doing anything different in terms positioning of defenders; rather it was, in the center fielder's words, "just one of those nights."

Verlander's ability to induce weak contact certainly helped make it just one of those nights, but Avila was quick to note that some balls were hit hard in Game 3. He agreed, though, that the Tigers didn't change their defensive approach, noting that the they "prepared for them the way we always have."

As for the source of the unlikely defensive successes, Avila attributed it to a little of everything. "A lot of times it's positioning, a lot of times it's pitch selection," he said. "But sometimes it's just dumb luck."

Whatever the underlying causes, the Detroit glove-men performed at a high level when a very different Verlander was on the mound. Without their consistency afield, Game 3 would've had a very different outcome.

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