It has come down to a best two-of-three in this American League Championship Series. Mano-a-mano. Both teams saying, “Let’s see what you’ve got.”
The Red Sox assignment is daunting. They must find a way to win a pair of games against a Detroit team that will trot out Anibal Sanchez tonight, Max Scherzer on Saturday and, if necessary, Justin Verlander for a Game 7 on Sunday night at Fenway Park. Combined, that Tiger trio has allowed two runs on six hits, with 35 strikeouts in 21 innings in this ALCS.
But remarkably, the Red Sox are 2-1 in their three starts.
They didn’t beat Scherzer in Game 2, but they unloaded on Detroit’s bullpen, tying the game on David Ortiz’s now iconic grand slam, then winning in walk-off fashion on Jarrod Saltalamacchia’s ninth-inning single. In Game 3, they touched up Verlander for only one run on Mike Napoli’s homer, and it stood up thanks to John Lackey, Craig Breslow, Junichi Tazawa and Koji Uehara.
But their two losses in the series are to Sanchez and Doug Fister.
Once again, go figure.
Tonight, 35 years after Bucky (Bleepin’) Dent and 10 years to the day after Aaron (Bleepin’) Boone shattered Red Sox hearts across New England, these bearded band of brothers look to take control of the ALCS in Motown.
The Tigers’ task isn’t any easier, for the Red Sox are not handing the ball to Matt Young, Matt Clement and John Wasdin for the next three games. Jon Lester gets it tonight, followed by Clay Buchholz and Lackey. Although their numbers aren’t as off-the-charts dazzling, they have been equally effective in shutting down the Tigers, most notably Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder.
These pitching match-ups are what has made this a spectacular ALCS, with three one-run games of the four played. It has fans anxiously awaiting what comes next.
The ALCS has already been stocked with pivotal decisions that have left both managers open to second-guessing. For Jim Leyland, the decision to shake up his slumping lineup for Game 4 by shifting Austin Jackson from lead-off to eighth and moving Cabrera into the second hole, among other changes, could not have worked out better, especially after his over-managing with his bullpen cost the Tigers Game 2. For John Farrell, calling upon Tazawa to face Cabrera with one out and the tying run on third base in the eighth inning of Game 3 seemed curious at the time, but turned out to be the correct move.
It’s been a strange series in many ways. Ortiz has only one hit (although it’s a big one), Pedroia is batting .214, Shane Victorino is hitting .125, and yet the Red Sox are tied. On the other hand, Cabrera (.267) hasn’t done much, while Fielder (.200, zero RBIs) has been MIA. One of these guys is going to break out.
The fifth game in a best-of-seven series is always pivotal. Sanchez can’t possibly pitch better than he did in Game 1 when he no-hit the Red Sox for six innings and fanned 12. But Lester, who allowed six hits and one run over 6.1 innings, kept his team in the game.
On the face of it, tonight feels like a game the Tigers must win. They don’t want to return to Fenway Park needing to take two games. But I feel it’s more essential for the Red Sox. Lose tonight and they face Scherzer and Verlander back-to-back. You don’t want to have to beat Verlander in a Game 7.
The Tigers’ predicament reminds me of Kevin Millar’s famous proclamation when the Red Sox trailed the Yankees 3-0 in games in the 2004 ALCS. Millar crowed that if the Red Sox staved off elimination the Yankees would have to beat Pedro Martinez and Curt Schilling in the following two games, and that would bring them to a seventh game where anything could happen.
I like the Red Sox’ chances a lot more if they win tonight, putting all the pressure on Scherzer to stave off elimination for the Tigers at Fenway on Saturday. Under those white-hot conditions I think Scherzer might melt. Verlander in a Game 7? No way.
Rob Duca was an award-winning sports columnist for the Cape Cape Times for 25 years. His work has also appeared in numerous other publications, including Sports Illustrated, the Boston Globe, the Baltimore Sun, Yankee magazine, Cape Cod Life and Golf & Leisure Cape Cod.