(DETROIT FREE PRESS) - The Tigers had Chamberlain.
But Boston had the baseball equivalent of Bill Russell.
That man, David Ortiz, hit a lead-changing three-run homer off Joba Chamberlain with one out in the ninth to give the Red Sox a 5-3 win at Comerica Park Sunday night.
Chamberlain tried to close in place of Joe Nathan, given the night off by manager Brad Ausmus after his 32-pitch exertion of the night before. If Chamberlain, who hadn't allowed a run in his last 12 outings, could have finished it off, this game would have been quite a story for the Tigers.
Left-hander Phil Coke would have gotten his first win in two seasons. He threw 1 1/3 scoreless innings, beginning when he rallied from a 3-0 count to get Ortiz with a succession of 96 mph fastballs to keep the game tied in the seventh.
In the bottom of the seventh, rookie Eugenio Suarez put the Tigers ahead, 3-2, when he delivered his second RBI single of his second big-league start. One night after he made his first big-league hit a homer, he was now in line for the game-winning hit.
The Tigers entered the ninth on the verge of a 6-0 sweep of the season series against Boston.
And they stood at that point without Miguel Cabrera, who exited in the bottom of the sixth with what the club termed "left hamstring tightness." He was lifted a moment after he reached first on a single. Cabrera said he might be able to play tonight in the series opener in Chicago against the White Sox.
Ortiz swept all that off the table with one mighty cut. He forever hovers over a game like Bill Russell did over a basket. While the Celtics' Russell was known for defense – and all those duels against scoring machine Wilt Chamberlain – Ortiz for years has been all offense in the DH role. He has 462 homers (including 17 in the post-season), and he continues to build a case that he should be the first player elected to the Hall of Fame as a designated hitter.
Ortiz hit his first homer off the Tigers since a certain grand slam on a Sunday night last fall . . . but we can stop right there on that.
Ortiz now has 19 homers at Comerica Park, the most ever by a visiting player. His blow Sunday night broke his Comerica tie with Chicago's Paul Konerko, who's in his final season. Ortiz, 38, is signed through next season, with club options for the two years beyond that.
Boston's Mike Napoli also doesn't seem to mind Comerica Park. He came off the disabled list Sunday and hit his 10th career homer at Comerica, counting his two huge ones in the playoffs last year. That's his most homers in any park in which he's never played for the home team (he homered at Comerica Park in his big-league debut in 2006, for the Angels, off rookie Justin Verlander.)
Napoli led off the sixth with an opposite-field, tying homer to right off Anibal Sanchez. It was the first homer off Sanchez in 218 at-bats, since Napoli went deep on him in Game 5 of the championship series. Sanchez, like Chamberlain, yielded his first homer of the season Sunday night.
Ortiz gave a lesson in resilience. He qualified for the Boston headline once earned by a Red Sox slugger whom Ortiz physically resembles, George "Boomer" Scott: "From Zero to Hero."
Ortiz struck out to end the third with runners on first and second. He lined to third to end the fifth with a runner on second.
Then he stepped in against Coke in the seventh with the score 2-2 and runners on first and third and two out. After falling behind 3-0, Coke found a few extra miles of velocity and pumped four consecutive 96 MPH fastballs: foul, swing and a miss, foul, fly to center.
Ortiz was 0-for-4, and Coke thrummed with excitement as he walked off to a roaring ovation.
"That's what makes the game fun – having a chance to go against one of the most clutch hitters of all time," Coke said. "I enjoy pitching in what could be really large situations."
In some ways, it was the best moment of the season for Ausmus. Even as Coke's ERA was up around 9.00 earlier this season, the first-year manager talked about the Tigers would need the left-hander for big situations, such as against the lefty-swinging Ortiz in the late innings. Ausmus stuck with Coke, never neglecting him, and he and Coke almost were both rewarded Sunday night with wins on their respective ledgers.
Coke struck out No. 9 hitter Jackie Bradley strand runners at first and third in the eighth to conclude his outing. He walked off to another big ovation.
"I felt really good – long time coming," Coke said of hisperformance. "I was able to attack the zone and let things happen."
But by letting those two runners get aboard in the eighth, Coke left the Red Sox needing only one runner to bring up Ortiz in the ninth. They got two when rookie Brock Holt (four hits) bounced a leadoff single up the middle and Dustin Pedroia, forever feisty, rallied from an 0-2 count for a one-out walk. Up stepped the designated hitter.
Ortiz connected on a 1-1 slider and cleared the right-field wall by plenty. He had just hit as big of a "three" as anyone might in the ongoing finals of the sport of Russell and Chamberlain.