Once the pomp and circumstance were finished – once the players had been paraded out to the baselines, once Nomar Garciaparra had delivered his ceremonial first pitch, once Fenway Park had paid tribute to the victims and volunteers of April’s bombing – the Red Sox took the field with a plan and a purpose.
Simple in principle, and consistent with their season-long approach, they set out to drive up the pitch count of Detroit starter Anibal Sanchez and get into a suspect bullpen by the middle innings. They wanted to force the Tigers to win Game 1 of the American League Championship Series not with the league’s earned run average leader, but with a revolving cast of middle relievers who have been less-than-reliable for much of this season.
And they actually executed that plan well. Sanchez needed 26 pitches to get through the first inning. He’d thrown 51 pitches by the end of the second. Then Sanchez was done after six innings, the stress of the 116 pitches he’d fired to that point superseding their sensational results, and prompting manager Jim Leyland to summon Al Alburquerque out of his bullpen after Sanchez walked six.
“We,” manager John Farrell said of his Red Sox, “achieved what we set out to do.”
The only problem was that it didn’t work.
Sure, the Sox may have ousted Sanchez sooner than the Tigers would’ve preferred, though before he left they were unable to reach him for a run – or even a hit. In fact, they didn’t get their first (and only) one of those against anybody until there was already an out in the top of the ninth, when Daniel Nava smacked a hard, lined single to center off Joaquin Benoit.
As such, the Tigers made stand the solo run they scored on Jhonny Peralta’s single in the sixth, thus securing a 1-0 win that gave them the same advantage in the best-of-seven series. And in doing so they made the fact that Boston hitters saw 164 pitches from five different Detroit arms look as much like a byproduct of striking out 17 times as some part of the grand plan.
Only two other teams in baseball history have struck out that many times in a postseason game, and after one night the Sox are already more than halfway to the 33 strikeouts their hitters totaled in four games against Tampa Bay. In that Division Series, Jacoby Ellsbury, Shane Victorino and David Ortiz were the three primary catalysts and cogs of the Boston offense, but Saturday night they combined to go 0-for-12 with eight whiffs – and thereby illustrated the idea that driving up the pitch count didn’t lead to productivity.
Between them, those three hitters saw a total of 57 pitches. They only put four of them in play. Only one of those reached the outfield. And 40 of them were part of plate appearances resulting in strikeouts. Typically the Sox pride themselves on their patience, and discipline, but against a Tiger staff that struck out more than any AL group during the regular season the indication Saturday was that getting into deep counts actually played into the strength of a Detroit staff that's loaded with power arms and knows what to do when given the chance to put hitters away.
“It’s a Catch-22: (Strikeouts are) not so valuable because you don’t get a lot of quick outs, so pitch count goes up,” Leyland said. “But when you get in a jam they have the capability of striking somebody out.”
Three times the Tigers found themselves in real jams, which is somewhat remarkable considering they still managed a one-hit shutout, but the Sox left two aboard in the first, then two more in the second, then squandered their best chance of the night in the sixth. Just after Detroit had taken its lead, Dustin Pedroia, Mike Napoli and Nava all worked walks to load the bases with two outs – but Stephen Drew couldn't deliver. He managed to foul off the 96 mph heater Sanchez hurtled toward him on his 115th pitch of the night, but Drew swung emptily at the 89 mph slider that followed.
“Two-out base hit was the difference in this one tonight,” Farrell said. “To chase a very good starter after six innings, I thought we succeeded in that right. We’re down a run, the game is still very much in the balance every time we come to the plate.”
The manager went on to applaud the way his team defended, particularly praising of the infield that threw out two runners on the bases in the fifth, and express some measure of satisfaction in the idea that his team “did a number of things well.”
No matter what, though, it wasn’t good enough – and it left the Sox in a position where they had to win Sunday or else go to Detroit down 0-2 in the series, with Justin Verlander set to pitch for the Tigers in Game 3. That would theoretically put increased pressure on them leading into Sunday night, but Farrell insisted his team thrives on turning the page.
“We have the ability to put tonight behind us,” the manager said, “and we’ll be ready to go.”
That ability has been a hallmark of this team, and it has now become a necessary asset in a series when any of the four Tiger starters is capable of turning in a performance something like Sanchez's on Saturday.
Thanks to him, it was nearly a night when history was made, coming within two outs of a no-hitter. Later it looked like it may instead be a night a legend was born, with Sox super-prospect Xander Bogaerts in the box with two outs and the tying run on second in the ninth. In the end, however, it turned out to be a night when the Red Sox did exactly what they set out to do -- and still didn't win.
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