ARLINGTON -- If a Justin Verlander start comes down to the Tigers' bullpen to win it, that's usually not a good sign, even when Detroit's relief corps is at full strength.
It's not a dig at the bullpen. It means there's either a pitching duel or a Verlander start gone horribly wrong. On Saturday, it was the pitching duel, and it came from Rangers left-hander Derek Holland.
If there was ever a safe assumption for a Tigers win in Texas, Saturday seemed to be it. Verlander did his part to set it up. Holland had other plans.
"I was able to make my pitches when I needed to and kept us in the ballgame," Verlander said after the Tigers' 2-1 loss. "It's tough that we didn't win this one, but we battled."
Few would've expected a pitching duel out of it, and fewer would've expected it to come down to dueling ninth-inning rallies against the bullpens. Once it did, though, the Rangers' relief advantage was seemingly coming together like it did so many times last October.
Their bullpen is arguably what won them last year's American League Championship Series over the Tigers. When Mike Adams stranded the bases loaded to get out of a one-out jam in the top of the ninth inning, you could kind of see it unfolding. Detroit's bullpen wasn't set up for a game like this in a Verlander start.
When Brayan Villarreal missed with his first eight pitches in the ninth, it was as clear as the sky on a hot, sunny Texas Saturday afternoon. They came within a Phil Coke strikeout pitch of getting out of it. Instead, they got a pinch-hit walk-off single from Mike Olt, fewer than two weeks into his big league career, to win it for the Rangers.
"When you walk the first two guys in [the ninth], you lose most likely. You can't do that," manager Jim Leyland said. "You just can't. You've got to make them earn it. We almost got out of it. Cokey did a terrific job, but you just can't do that."
Nor, Leyland said, can they miss on their own bases-loaded opportunity in the top of the inning.
Both rallies started with back-to-back walks in the middle of the order. The only difference was that the Tigers' rally came with one out, rather than leading off the inning, and they were well-worked at-bats by Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder.
For that matter, it was a good at-bat from Delmon Young, who fouled off an Adams curveball to stay alive on a 2-2 count before getting enough of a slider to send a ground ball through the right side.
Even with a speedier runner, it's hard to envision third-base coach Gene Lamont sending him on strong-armed right fielder Nelson Cruz. With Cabrera rounding third, the stop sign was guaranteed, leaving it up to pinch-hitter Brennan Boesch and Jhonny Peralta.
Boesch swung at the first pitch he saw from Adams and shattered his bat on a ground ball, hard enough for first baseman Mitch Moreland to fire home and force out Cabrera.
Once Josh Hamilton ran down Peralta's drive to left-center, the opportunity was gone.
"That's two games in three days where it has cost us, when we haven't got a run in from third," Leyland pointed out, referring to last Thursday's loss to the Yankees. "You can't do that. That's just the way it is.
"You're not mad about it. You're not upset at anybody. I'm just talking about, you can't do that if you want to win games. You can't do that. You've got to find a way to get them in."
Thursday's opportunity was a game-ender. The Tigers still had a tie game after missing Saturday's chance, but they had a short bullpen to try to do it.
Closer Jose Valverde and setup man Octavio Dotel weren't available, having pitched too much over the previous couple days. Valverde had pitched in a non-save situation Friday night. His absence left closing duties to Joaquin Benoit, who thus wouldn't have pitched unless there was a lead. Even then, Benoit's four home runs allowed over his last two outings left his ability to maintain a tie game in question.
Leyland normally prefers to pitch Villarreal for three outs in a game, rather than extend him. Between Saturday's situation and a nine-pitch eighth inning, Villarreal stayed in for the ninth. Eight balls later, he was out, his command struggles having resurfaced. Coke, who has had his own struggles of late, was in.
Coke pitched about as well as he has in a while, getting a Craig Gentry popout and striking out Geovany Soto. Coke dug Olt into a two-strike count, but the breaking ball that Eric Chavez fouled off so often Wednesday before his run-scoring groundout got the same treatment from Olt, who fouled off four pitches with two strikes.
"The report was he's a pretty good fastball hitter," catcher Gerald Laird said. "So we mixed in a few fastballs, but I'm not gonna get beat with it, especially in that spot when we've got [Ian] Kinsler coming up. So we got ahead and tried to get him to chase on something.
"He wasn't taking very good swings at the slider, so we kind of stayed with that. He caught one out in front and it found a hole. If that ball's hit over to Miggy, no one says nothing."
It was the situation they found themselves in. On a night when Verlander pitched seven innings of one-run ball and ex-Tiger Brandon Inge got the go-ahead hit for the A's in a White Sox loss, it was an opportunity lost to move into a virtual tie atop the AL Central.
"Anytime you get a win with Verlander on the mound, it's big," Adams said. "Very big."