With the St. Louis Cardinals having made the Dodgers look rather Mickey Mouse-ish en route to a 9-0 annihilation of Los Angeles and ace Clayton Kershaw on Friday night, the National League's World Series representative has been established. And Red Sox fans are hoping the American League will follow suit quickly by also deciding its pennant in six games.
Boston has a chance to arrange for a rematch of the 2004 World Series -- ceremonial first pitch from MVP Manny Ramirez, anyone? -- by beating Detroit tonight at Fenway Park, entering the contest with three one-run wins to their credit, and looking to avoid a winner-take-all against Justin Verlander by taking down this season's presumptive Cy Young winner, Max Scherzer, before it gets that far.
Scherzer will obviously be an important piece of how things play out Saturday. But he's not alone. Here's a look at six factors that figure to play prominently in deciding Game 6:
1. Will Scherzer adjust? Or will Sox adjust to him?
As he prepared to face the Red Sox for the second time this series, and the third time at Fenway in the past seven weeks, the Tiger righty said it will be necessary for him to adapt his approach Saturday night because by now Boston has an idea of what to expect.
"They're familiar with what I did," he said. "Obviously they're going to be looking through the film and watching what I did, the sequences, patterns, when I threw off‑speed pitches, when I didn't. Obviously I've got to be ahead of the curve. Obviously I don't know exactly what I'm going to do. But there will be things I do differently."
In holding the Sox to one run in seven innings, Scherzer's best weapon was his slider. He threw it 17 times, and not once did Boston's hitters put it in play. They swung and missed nine times (53 percent), and he registered six strikeouts with the pitch that opponents hit .132 against this season.
He used it 45 percent of the time he had two strikes on a right-handed hitter -- but that usage was hardly different than the way he employed the pitch during the regular season, when he used it in 43 percent of those situations. Overall, he threw the slider on 15.7 percent of his pitches in Game 2, compared to 14.7 percent prior to that point.
Given how successful Scherzer's season was, and how effective he's been in his last two starts against Boston, it wouldn't be surprising if Scherzer was bluffing in his comments and he sticks with his tried-and-true game plan until the Sox force him to adapt by proving they've adjusted. Those hitters haven't had a lot of success against elite sliders throughout the year, so if Scherzer were to voluntarily alter his approach, it would actually play into Boston's batting-gloved hands.
2. Buchholz needs to control the situation.
As Eric Wilbur accurately pointed out Friday, fan confidence in Buchholz is probably at a season low after he surrendered eight hits and five runs over 5.2 innings in Game 2, and ran his ERA to 6.17 this postseason. And based on what John Farrell said Thursday, the Sox had better hope Buchholz isn't experiencing those same doubts about himself at the end of a season that was spoiled by three months on the disabled list.
When Buchholz is right, he has shined through his ability to make a pitch when it matters, to avoid bad mistakes, and to limit damage. Lately, though, he's made too many mistakes to sluggers and paid the price with home runs, and last Sunday he let the sixth inning blow up on him entirely.
His fading at the end of that start prompted questions about the right-hander's arm strength, though his manager indicated it had more to do with misplaced pitches and poor game management than anything else. The Tigers should have a sense of urgency Saturday night, so it'll be important that Buchholz do a better job in both of those regards, and not allow Detroit to turn a couple of baserunners into a rally.
"I don't think it's just a matter of fatigue," Farrell said. "Consistency to execution against these types of lineups is never more important. And when you mislocate, you're going to pay the price. And he has in that four‑run inning the other night, where in the matter of 11 pitches it was four runs on the board.
"Recognizing that the momentum, particularly the momentum inside an inning, is what's got to be kept under check a little bit more, and particularly in Clay's situation."
3. The Sox are better when Shane Victorino is a factor.
Unfortunately, at this point he's not. The right fielder is 2-for-21 in the series, without a walk, and he was particularly brutal in Game 5 -- when he went 0-for-5, struck out twice, returned to hitting left-handed, abandoned that idea partway through the contest, and came up with a chance to pad the Sox' lead in the ninth, but failed wildly at four straight pitches off the plate to eventually get himself out.
Farrell said they'd thought about bumping Victorino out of the No. 2 spot in the lineup, though as of Friday they hadn't yet made the decision to do so. If it doesn't happen in Game 6 it's a more distinct possibility if there's a Game 7. Although if Victorino can figure out a way to turn things around Saturday, he's impactful enough himself to see that that game never happens.
4. Will Alex Avila play?
Avila was having a really good series, looking more like the AL MVP candidate of 2011 than the .227 hitter of this season, before he was crunched by David Ross in a collision at home plate and twisted his knee. Jim Leyland said Friday that he wasn't sure about his catcher's availability for Game 6 -- but it could have a significant impact on the contest.
Avila had a homer and three RBI against Buchholz in Game 2, and is a .455 hitter against him lifetime, so his left-handed bat would be a substantial loss for the middle of the Tigers' lineup. Then in the bottom of the inning it could force Detroit to scramble defensively. Brayan Pena came in and played well Thursday, but Leyland admitted that he and his coaches would at least consider moving designated hitter Victor Martinez behind he plate if Avila can't go.
Martinez is a career catcher, but coming off knee reconstruction surgery he caught just three games this season (two in August, one in September). He's a veteran, and a pro, so he'd probably be okay. But it would still take the Tigers into a scenario they'd prefer not to have to go.
"That has been thought about, yes," Leyland said. "But I don't want to ‑‑ particularly this time of year with the significance of everything and then so much media, once you mention something like that, it's all over the wires that Martinez might catch. That's not true. I hope nobody starts writing that, because it's not true. But it would be an option, let me put it that way. It would be an option."
5. Double plays.
The Red Sox pitching staff has been excellent, without question. But part of the reason they've done so well to limit runs and squelch Tiger rallies is their incredible knack for inducing double plays in this series.
Through five games the Sox have turned eight twin killings, including three in Game 5 alone. Some of that has to do with Detroit's plodding hitters, but a lot of it has to do with the execution of the Sox' infield defense, and if there's one number that quantifies why Stephen Drew remains John Farrell's choice at shortstop,that's probably it.
Junichi Tazawa prompted two double plays all season, then got a pair on Thursday night, including one while facing Miguel Cabrera with runners at the corners, nobody out, and the Sox clinging to a two-run lead. That was arguably the biggest play in the latter half of that game. And, conversely, Boston's inability to roll a pair punished them in Game 4, when Dustin Pedroia booted an opportunity to start the sequence, and Detroit turned that opening into a game-turning rally.
Can the Sox continue to count on bailing themselves out, two outs at a time? That could be a critical question.
6. Does Prince Fielder wake up?
The Tiger first baseman has been a nonfactor in the series, going 4-for-19 with one extra-base hit, a .286 OBP, and a .549 OPS. Leyland stuck by his first baseman Friday, saying "he's had some good at‑bats. He's had some quick at‑bats, as well, where he puts the ball in play and hasn't quite centered it where he wants to. He's just trying to hit the ball hard. When he gets it hard and in the air obviously you do some damage with it. But he just hasn't been able to do that a lot yet, although he's hit some balls pretty good."
With Martinez swinging the bat well, and Johnny Peralta posing a threat behind him, the Tiger manager has to be thinking about whether he might be better off dropping Fielder in the order, and giving Cabrera some better protection.
That might seem rash treatment of a $24 million star, but Sox fans should remember what happened with Jason Giambi back in 2003. Through six games of that ALCS, the Yankee was 4-for-21 with one RBI. For Game 7, Joe Torre dropped Giambi from third to seventh in the New York lineup -- and Giambi's two homers kept the game close enough for Grady Little to ultimately give it away..
Keep that in mind if Leyland's lineup creates a reason to compare the situations.
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