Five questions to be answered in Game 3, as the Sox try first to snap Justin Verlander's four-game scoreless streak, then beat the Tigers in a swing game of this American League Championship Series...
1. Can the Sox get to Verlander early? Boston had three hits in the first 16 innings of the series before striking for five hits and five runs over the final two frames on Sunday night, so the Sox' hope is that they're past those early problems offensively, or have at least adjusted to the way the Tigers are trying to pitch them.
But there's another side to those early innings, too. Over the course of the 27-inning scoreless streak he brings into Game 3, Verlander -- who is known to build up strength as the game wears on, particularly in terms of his velocity -- has been excellent early, and allowed to get into a rhythm. In each of his Division Series starts against the A's he faced the minimum of nine batters over the first three innings, and in his final regular-season start against the Marlins he finished the first three frames in 35 pitches after facing only 11 hitters.
Conversely, in four of the six starts he surrendered at least five runs this season, he allowed at least one run in the first inning. And when the Red Sox got to him for four runs in five innings on June 23, they forced him to throw 28 pitches in the second, then 29 in the third, while totaling four hits, a walk, and scoring three times over those innings.
Statistically, the right-hander's two best frames of the game this season were the sixth (2.70 ERA) and the seventh (2.18), so if may behoove the Sox to not let Verlander get off to the type of start that allows him to still be in the game at that point.
2. Do the Sox get aggressive or work counts? In the second game of their Division Series, the Sox swung early in the count so as not to let David Price get ahead in the count -- and they could take a similar approach today against Verlander.
Like the Rays' lefty, the Tigers' righty is particularly lethal when he gets himself in position to control the plate appearance, opponents batting .184 with a .492 OPS against him with two strikes, and .192 with a .453 OPS against him when the pitcher is ahead in the count. That last number includes only two homers and 16 extra-base hits in 340 plate appearances.
The Sox don't want to fall behind Verlander -- but, on the other hand, Game 2 reinforced the notion that the Tigers' bullpen is a liability. Jim Leyland mixed and matched his way through the eighth inning as though he didn't trust any one person to protect a four-run lead, and still a quartet of relievers couldn't hold the advantage. He didn't even trust Joaquin Benoit to work a second inning after allowing the game-tying grand slam to David Ortiz, yanking him before the ninth in favor of Rick Porcello despite Benoit having thrown just eight pitches.
Obviously, if given the choice, Boston's batters would rather face anyone from that bullpen more than Verlander. But in order to do damage against the starter, their best hope looks to be swinging early. So if that's what they do, they'd better not miss.
3. Is Dustin Pedroia about to get really hot? The second baseman had just three hits in his last 19 at-bats when he stepped in against Scherzer in the sixth inning Sunday night, but that high double he smacked off the wall might have been the start of something.
He followed it up with a single to right in the eighth, setting up Ortiz's heroics -- and possibly indicating that this mini-slump has reached its end. As consistent as his year-end numbers typically are, Pedroia is the type of hitter who becomes incredibly tough to get out when he's going well, and if he's about to embark on one of those hot streaks it will change the look of the Red Sox lineup dramatically.
Not only is he in an RBI spot behind Jacoby Ellsbury and Shane Victorino, and not only would the Sox love to have a man on base ahead of Ortiz, but another major benefit to a sizzling Pedroia would be that when he's feeling good, he is very difficult to strikeout. Based on the means by which Detroit has limited Boston over the first two games, that's an asset not to be underestimated.
4. Will Gomes reward his manager's faith? Among the highlights of the Red Sox' 2012 seasons -- yes, there were actually some of those -- was Daniel Nava winning a battle with Verlander during a late-May game at Fenway.
Coming with the bases loaded, Verlander threw Nava six pitches, five of them fastballs traveling at least 98 mph, and when the righty ramped the last one up to 100, Nava stuck his bat out there and lined a three-run double. It was the biggest hit in the game that pushed the Sox over .500 for the first time that season. And it was so big a moment, NESN even made a commercial out of it.
But, in Game 3, it appears as though Nava will take a seat, and Jonny Gomes will play left field. John Farrell suggested as much on Monday, when he told reporters he was anticipating a return to his Game 1 lineup.
"He can bring an overall personality to a team when he's in the lineup versus when he's in the dugout," the manager said. "These are the things at this point in time in the year I think you have to consider strongly with the attitude and the makeup that we present on the field."
Throughout this season Farrell has credited Gomes' chatter and attitude in the dugout among the reasons why the Sox have been so good late in games, and why Gomes is such a dangerously prepared pinch-hitter. But the manager said "there's a substantial difference" in the way his outfielder can impact the game when he's in the lineup compared to when he's not.
And apparently that difference is substantial enough that the Sox staff would overlook the fact Gomes is 0-for-9 with three walks and three strikeouts in 12 career trips against Verlander -- and leave themselves ripe for second-guessing if it doesn't work.
(For what it's worth, the aforementioned double is Nava's only hit against Verlander in three tries.)
5. Can john Lackey keep Austin Jackson and Torii Hunter in check? To this point, each of Detroit's top two hitters is 1-for-10 with three strikeouts in the series -- and making sure they stay cold will be important for Red Sox pitching, because there are indications that whatever was ailing Miguel Cabrera for most of the last six weeks is no longer limiting him as much as it was.
Cabrera is 2-for-7 in the series, though the home run he crushed in Game 2 was his second in three games, and his single in Game 1 would've been a double if he could run better. Then, when the hot bats of Victor Martinez and Jhonny Peralta are factored in to the mix two and three spots farther down the order -- and when considering that all three of those guys are hitting at least .333 off Lackey lifetime -- the Red Sox could run into trouble if they start letting Jackson and Hunter on base ahead of those guys.
Jackson is 3-for-8 (.375) against Lackey in his career, though Hunter is just a .232 hitter in 56 at-bats. So if the Sox' righty can continue that trend, and pitch to the level of his 3.83 ERA at Comerica Park, he should give himself a chance to get a win.
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