In the baseball version of the Cuban Missile Crisis (I'm exaggerating, but bear with me), a pair of superpowers (John Lester and Justin Verlander) went toe-to-toe. These two aces pitched their hearts out and refused to back down, bat an eyelash, or yield an inch. They engaged in a classic pitcher's duel; all out war between two evenly matched opponents. You got the sense these two warriors would have pitched deep into the night if Bobby Valentine and Jim Leyland had let them. Lester departed after seven gritty innings during which he allowed nine Tigers to reach base but just one to cross home after back-to-back two-out doubles by Jhonny Peralta and Alex Avila in his last inning of work. The American League's reigning Cy Young and Most Valuable Player, denied the opportunity to finish what he started, followed his counterpart to the showers an inning later, albeit with a much cleaner stat line (no runs and only two hits and walk walk allowed). When Detroit tacked on an insurance run in the bottom of the frame on a Prince Fielder sac fly, and with Jose Valverde (a perfect 49 for 49 in save opportunities last season, 52 for 52 if you include the postseason) coming in to close the door against a Boston lineup that looked lifeless all afternoon, the game seemed all but over.
But then, with their backs to the wall, the Red Sox woke up. Dustin Pedroia led off with a double, and Adrian Gonzalez followed suit with a single to put runners on the corners with nobody out. David Ortiz, always so reliable in the clutch, lifted a sacrifice fly to center field to slice Detroit's lead in half. Kevin Youkilis struck out on a foul tip to cap off an oh-for-four day, but Ryan Sweeney of all people, the guy with the career .378 slugging percentage, drilled an RBI triple off the right field wall to knot the score at two and cost Verlander his first win of 2012. With the go-ahead run just 90 feet away, newcomer Cody Ross, he of the monster spring training, ended the rally by lining out to Peralta.
Valentine brought in fellow newbie Mark Melancon to fend off the bottom of the Tigers lineup in the last half of the ninth, but managed to get just one out before the skipper had to go back to the bullpen. Alfredo Aceves (named the team's closer in the wake of Andrew Bailey's injury) entered the game with Peralta and Avila dancing off second and first, and promptly plunked Ramon Santiago (their freaking number nine hitter!) to load the bases and turn the lineup over with just one out.
Once that happened, the game was practically over. The average team will score 67.9 percent of the time in that situation, so Detroit just needed to finish the job. Austin Jackson, the former hotshot Yankee prospect who already had two hits on the day, ripped a hard grounder down the third base line. Youk turned to his right and laid out for it, but the bullet skipped by him and that was that. The Tigers had themselves their first of what will surely be many victories in 2012, and the Red Sox suffered another heartbreaking walk-off loss on the road, victimized by another light-hitting opponent.
And please don't remind me that they dropped the pivotal 162nd game of 2011 in a similar fashion, or mention the fact that they've lost 21 of their past 28 regular season games.