A tale of two Game Fives: 1968 and 2011 Tigers

Alex Avila Game Five 2011 ALCS Detroit Tigers

Detroit Tiger catcher Alex Avila rounds the bases after his home run in Game Five of the 2011 American League Championship Series.

Game Five of the 2011 American League Championship Series should be preserved in a Mason jar from Mrs. Doubleday’s fruit cellar and put on permanent display at the game’s Hall of Fame in Cooperstown as certain proof of the sport’s living link to decades past.

The facets of the game that draw its most determined fans — the slow and deliberate manipulation of time and outcome; the potential sense of déjà vu ever-present in a sport that treasures its vibrant history — come alive in post-season competition. No other team sport defies mortality and manipulates generations like baseball.

So it was at about 4:15 p.m. Thursday — no joke — that I said to my wife “Write this down, okay? ‘It’s like 1968 all over again.’ ” It had that feeling. Things seemed … familiar.

Baseball can do that to you. It was, after all, a crucial Game 5 — a home-standing Game 5 — of a gut-wrenching Series that had seen the frantic hopes and passions of Detroiters slammed and skewered, even mocked, by the odd turns of fortune of this wet October. A Tigers team that had led us to believe that it could not be denied was being denied in the garish spotlight of national TV.

It was, repeating, like 1968 all over again. This time it was Texas; back then it was the St. Louis Cardinals. Both Tigers teams came to the post-season with plenty to prove: The ‘68 Bengals were living down 23 seasons of struggle, the long years of the Frustrating Fifties and the nightmarish last-day collapse of 1967. The ‘68 squad roared into that year’s World Series like action heroes; the comeback kings of baseball, they had annihilated all American League opposition. They featured a 31-game winning pitcher who played organ all over town whether people wanted him to or not, and a sublime right-fielder named Kaline who was finally going to be nationally recognized as the prince of his sport.

And what happened? Bing, bang, zoom … they got bounced in Game One by a phenom pitcher, outplayed here in Detroit on a lovely Saturday in Game Three, and humiliated 10-1 in a rain-soaked Game Four by the same phenom guy. Down three games to one, Game Five — the final home contest — came in like a summons to an execution.

The 2011 Tigers could identify. Boasting the finest pitcher of his time and a lineup that rarely bothered to ever fall behind, the Bengals rocketed through August and September, once again setting our town on fire. It has been 27 years since our last World Series championship, and a 2006 Series appearance left Tigers faces redder than their opponents jerseys. But this team would make up for all that — and their inspiring first round slap-down of the New York Yankees had the locals believing, and yearning for more.

And what happened again? Zoom, bang, bing … the lovely Texas Rangers suddenly had our boys on the mat in the same fashion as the ‘68 team. Down 3 games to 1, with just one last home chance … Game Five … for the Tigers to pull themselves back into competition.

Well, pull themselves back into competition they did on Thursday… in a performance that had some recalling the “Go Get ‘Em, Tigers” year of 1968.

Tigers chances, both years, relied on their pitching heroes — Mickey Lolich and Justin Verlander. But the locals were shocked in ’68’s Game Five when Lolich gave up a leadoff double to Lou Brock, followed by an RBI single by Curt Flood.

“I wasn’t in my rhythm yet,” Lolich explained of a first inning that saw St. Louis vault to a frightening 3-0 lead.

On Thursday, the locals were shocked again when Verlander — practically considered untouchable around here — gave up a leadoff double that led to a 1-0 Ranger lead.

“I kind of haven’t had my rhythm,” Verlander said.

But the 2011 Tigers behind Verlander, just like the ‘68 team and Lolich, refused to be denied. Solo home runs kept the team alive until a magic sixth inning broke the game open for Detroit. Hitting for a natural “cycle,” the Tigers gouged the Rangers for — in order — a single, double, triple, and home run that put the Bengals ahead to stay.

In Game Five of 1968, the Tigers employed a stunning play, almost an inexplicable piece of precision and luck, that turned that game, and seemingly the entire World Series. In the fifth inning, with the Cardinals leading 3-2, Tigers outfielder Willie Horton threw a strike to catcher Bill Freehan as speedster Lou Brock almost casually ran home from second base on a single to left … not bothering to slide. In a flash, Brock was out standing up, by an eyelash, and the Cardinals never seemed to recover.

The 2011 Tigers won their Game Five on a play nearly as bizarre. Slugger Miguel Cabrera contributed his part of the cycle with maybe the most unusual, and hopefully the most pivotal, double in Tigers history in that sixth inning. He lined a ground shot down the third baseline that clipped maybe the outside inch of the bag at third. The ball caromed high into the air, and continued into the leftfield corner. Minus that strange bounce, Texas would likely have converted the grounder into a double-play. Instead, as with Horton’s throw in ‘68, the Tigers turned the corner and were on their way.

Also back in 1968, Al Kaline followed Horton’s play with a classic clutch single into right-centerfield that put the Tigers ahead to stay. It was the single greatest hit of Kaline’s long career. In Thursday’s Game Five, Victor Martinez followed Cabrera’s oddity with a dramatic triple to right field. Roaring into third and pounding the air with his fists, Martinez’ RBI brought back the memory of Kaline’s hit of deliverance 43 years ago at glorious Tiger Stadium.

1968’s Game Five was the greatest baseball game I ever saw. The 2011 version was one of the best ever. Will Thursday’s Game Five magic turn this Series? The 1968 Tigers turned theirs, pulling off a two-game sweep in St. Louis.

Stranger things have happened; strange things have already happened, as evidenced Thursday.