By now it's been almost five years since the Red Sox won a playoff game. It's been 1,782 days, to be exact, and that's long enough to have seen Barack Obama twice be elected president, for 16 of the 29 other major-league teams to experience victory in the postseason, and for the Sox' and Rays' rosters to be so restocked that only four players who partook in Boston's ALCS Game 6 triumph still remain with those same teams.
But after Tuesday night, Red Sox Nation should have no trouble remembering the recipe for winning in October -- because not only did the local nine beat the Tigers, 2-1, in a game that had a playoff feel from start to finish, they did it by following to the letter a tried-and-true formula for postseason success. And because they did so against a team and a pitcher they may well see with a pennant on the line, that should convince those holdout fans whose faith may still waver that these Sox are indeed a club capable of competing with anybody come the postseason.
The first ingredient in the recipe was Tuesday -- and is always -- quality starting pitching, which came courtesy of Jon Lester. In the 26 hours or so between the time Detroit's Doug Fister shut down the Sox on Monday, and Lester took the ball Tuesday, a lot of the talk was about how Boston struggles against good pitching, and how that might ultimately be its demise in an AL tournament that figures to be loaded with high-end arms.
But Lester's masterpiece offered a reminder that the best way to fix that is to fight fire with fire. If your opponent is pitching well, so must you. And even with AL Cy Young favorite Max Scherzer living up to his billing at Fenway, on this night Lester met the challenge and not only matched him, but made one fewer mistake.
The Sox lefty surrendered a laser-beam double to old friend Jose Iglesias in the second to give the Tigers the early 1-0 lead, though with an effective mix of pitches and impressive velocity he was otherwise excellent -- never more so than when he squashed a threatening situation in the top of the fifth.
Will Middlebrooks had opened the gate to trouble with an error earlier in the frame, then with two outs Austin Jackson and Torii Hunter each singled, so the ever-dangerous Miguel Cabrera came to the plate with the bases loaded and two outs. With Scherzer on the mound the Sox could ill-afford to fall behind by another run (let alone two, three, or four), so it was imperative that Lester find a way to retire the man he, along with most others, considers "the best hitter on the planet."
And he did. Lester fell behind 2-0, but Cabrera fouled off a pitch in that count, then the southpaw buried a cutter in on the hands of the hulking slugger. He bounced a grounder to shortstop, and with that Lester had successfully managed to make the critical pitches necessary to win a confrontation with one of the game's elite. Winning those key battles with the best is another ingredient in the recipe for postseason success.
As is what happened next, when the Red Sox used a smart, calm, calculated approach to create an opportunity at a point in the game where those weren't coming easily or often, and to subsequently not let it go squandered when it arose.
Their chance started with Jonny Gomes, who initially appeared to have a double taken away from him when the third base umpire ruled his bouncer foul (though it appeared to bound over the edge of the bag). Hits were scarce against Scherzer, but Gomes, undeterred and undefeated, ripped another single to left.
Stephen Drew then crushed a ground-rule double to deep right-center, and after David Ross struck out, Middlebrooks came up with men on second and third and two outs. Knowing the circumstances, and knowing how Scherzer would try to attack him, the third baseman who was sent to Triple-A earlier this season in part to change his approach at the plate did exactly that. "Normally I'd go up there and look for a heater," he said, "in that situation there, with guys in scoring position, he throws the off-speed."
So when Scherzer hung a slider on the first pitch, Middlebrooks was ready. Smartly, again, he didn't try to do too much with it -- "You really have to stick with your approach with Scherzer," he said, "because with the stuff he has you might get one pitch in an at-bat to hit, and you can't miss it" -- and drove it right back through the middle into center field. Gomes scored, followed by a standing Drew. By winning another battle over one of the league's best, the Sox had a 2-1 lead.
And they kept it, of course, thanks to the finishing touch of the postseason-ready recipe: An effective bullpen that's deep at the back end. John Farrell showed a ton of confidence in rookie Brandon Workman by calling on him to pitch to Cabrera to begin the eighth, and that faith was rewarded with a fly to right. Craig Breslow came on next to get Prince Fielder.
And although Breslow left him with a runner aboard (because Victor Martinez singled), Junichi Tazawa thwarted things there. He made Omar Infante look silly in swinging at a 75 mph curveball to go ahead in the count, 1-2, then came right back and blew away the second baseman by elevating a fastball at 95.
From there it was almost a foregoing conclusion, given the run Koji Uehara is on -- but, really, he had the easy part. He came on and faced Detroit's 7-8-9 hitters in the ninth, so there was no Cabrera, no Fielder, no Martinez. There was no Jackson and no Hunter, either, because within nine pitches the night was over, and the top of the order never got another crack.
But by then the Sox didn't need to go through that gauntlet for any further validation. They'd already taken on the AL's best pitcher for seven innings. They'd taken on the AL's best hitter in four at-bats, twice with men in scoring position. They'd taken the best punches from the team that had scored the most runs in the American League, while surrendering the second-fewest, and the Sox weren't just still standing -- they were standing over the Tigers.
And doing so with confidence they could be the ones to deliver Detroit a knockout blow come an October that shouldn't be about simply winning a postseason game, or even winning a playoff round.
It should be about winning a pennant, because after Tuesday night it looks like there's nobody -- nobody -- in the American League that these Red Sox can't beat.
|Shane Victorino, RF||0-for-4, 2 K: He's now 3-for-18 when hitting out of the leadoff spot this season, which is where he was Tuesday as Jacoby Ellsbury rested his sore hand. His last at-bat, it's worth noting, came left-handed.|
|Daniel Nava, LF||0-for-3, BB: The free pass pushed his streak to 38 starts reaching base by hit or walk, third-longest in the majors this season.|
|Dustin Pedroia, 2B||1-for-4, K: He's now batting .279 this season against righties; if he finishes below .283, it'll be the third straight season when his average his declined according to that split.|
|David Ortiz, DH||0-for-3, BB: It was a good 0-for for Ortiz, who worked a walk against Scherzer and also hammered the ball on a lineout to right.|
|Mike Carp, 1B||0-for-3, 2 K: It was not a good 0-for for Carp, though Mike Napoli singled as a pinch-hitter in the eighth.|
|Jonny Gomes, LF||2-for-4, R: He wouldn't have been in the lineup if it hadn't been for Ellsbury's ailment, yet he delivered the Sox first two hits.|
|Stephen Drew, SS||1-for-3, R, BB, 2B: He crushed his double to the track in front of the Red Sox bullpen, and worked a walk against Scherzer, making his the best night for a Red Sox offensively.|
|David Ross, C||0-for-2, K, HBP: He was hit on the hand by a Scherzer heater, but was fine afterward. And he got a hug from Tigers catcher Brayan Pena out of the deal, so all's well.|
|Will Middlebrooks, 3B||1-for-3, 2 RBI, K, SB: The RBIs were his first in 10 days, which left him feeling "better than you know." His feet lightened by his big hit, he subsequently stole second.|
|Jon Lester, SP||7 IP, ER, 8 H, 9 K, 2B: It took him 17 pitches to get through the first two batters, but he recovered well and needed just 111 bullets to complete seven innings.|
|Brandon Workman, SP||0.1 IP: Of being summoned in a big spot against Cabrera, he said, ""Being put into a big situation like that with one of the best -- if not the best -- hitter in the game, it's a big spot and a spot I like to be in. I like being put into places like that, so I was excited for it."|
|Craig Breslow, RP||0.1 IP, H: After getting Fielder, he was trusted with Martinez, though it meant the designated hitter would hit from his more dangerous right side. Not sure if says more about Farrell's trust in Breslow or Tazawa.|
|Junichi Tazawa, RP||0.1 IP, K: Infante is a good hitter -- and Tazawa made him look silly en route to the strikeout. Beautiful pitch selection and execution.|
|Koji Uehara, RP||IP, 2 K: He's now retired 21 hitters in a row. Hard to ask for more from a closer than that.|
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