The Red Sox' struggle to hit the Tigers' terrific pitching has been readily apparent to anyone who has seen any part of the American League Championship Series -- aside from the eighth and ninth innings Sunday night, of course. And when considering these first three games as an aggregate, rather than in-the-moment eyeball tests, the facts are all the more alarming.
Boston is 12-for-90, with a .133 batting average, a .228 on-base percentage, and a .222 slugging percentage. It has six hits and 35 strikeouts in 21 innings against Detroit's starting pitchers, 12 hits and 43 strikeouts overall. Every hitter who's started two games has struck out at least three times, and the two who started just once have each struck out twice. Jonny Gomes is tied with Dustin Pedroia for the team lead in hits, with two, and neither of those has left the infield.
Through 27 innings, Boston has scored runs in only four frames. It has a hit in only eight frames. It has put the leadoff man aboard only thrice. It has been retired in order 11 times. It has had only 15 at-bats with runners in scoring position, which is two fewer than it had after one Division Series game against Tampa Bay. And, thus, third base coach Brian Butterfield has been forced to make just two decisions, both in Game 2: wave home Shane Victorino in the sixth, hold Will Middlebrooks in the eighth.
So what might be the most remarkable fact of them all is that the Red Sox somehow hold a 2-1 lead in this best-of-seven battle for the pennant. But it all just underscores the importance of taking advantage of the opportunity coming their way in Wednesday night's Game 4.
Because although the Sox have survived a brilliant barrage from three of the AL's premier pitchers, if they can't beat Detroit's Doug Fister, they'll again be looking at the succession of Anibal Sanchez, Max Scherzer, and Justin Verlander -- knowing they'll need to win two of three against those star righties again in order to earn their place in the World Series.
That's daunting under any circumstances, let alone circumstances where those three have shown they're pitching well and they have a gameplan that's plenty effective if they can continue to execute. However, if the Sox can handle their business today, and really take this series by the throat, they'd only have to win one of those final three contests, and two of them would be at Fenway.
By no means will that be an easy task against Fister, the veteran right-hander who stands 6-foot-8 and won 14 games this season with a 3.67 ERA. But it's not supposed to be easy in the postseason. And there's a reason that he's Detroit's fourth starter: It's that he's more hittable than the first three.
Over the course of the season, Fister allowed an average of 9.9 hits per nine innings, which was 3.5 more than Scherzer, 2.2 more than Sanchez, and 1.2 more than Verlander. Meanwhile, Fister struck out just 6.9 batters per nine innings, 3.2 fewer than Scherzer, 3.1 fewer than Sanchez, and 2.0 fewer than Verlander.
Opponents put the ball in play against the sinkerballer, who allowed 1.31 baserunners per inning for the year, and saw that number spike to 1.39 after the All-Star break. He's also hit 16 batters -- so the Red Sox should have their share of opportunities against him on Wednesday night. For the first time in this series, they should be able to put the ball in play, to press the issue, to simply be themselves after three games of struggling just to make contact.
Now, that doesn't mean they Sox are about to bust out and start scoring in bunches. Fister understands that as a pitcher who barely breaks 90 mph and relies on the groundball he is frequently going to be working with men aboard, and he's comfortable in those circumstances. He knows how to limit damage, and how to use his bread-and-butter to help him escape a jam. He tied for the AL lead this season by inducing 26 double plays.
The Red Sox know full well how that goes, having rolled into three of them when Fister pitched at Fenway Park on Sept. 2. In that game, the Tiger starter enjoyed only one 1-2-3 inning, and yielded four hits and four walks, but he left the mound after seven innings without having allowed a run. He didn't dazzle -- inducing only six swinging strikes on 112 pitches -- but he danced around difficulty, and posted a 3-0 victory.
It was a much different result than Fister rendered in his start against the Sox in late June, when he lasted only 3.1 innings before exiting with a 6-1 deficit. That day he faced 21 batters and allowed 11 hits, including two singles and a homer to Shane Victorino (batting left-handed), as well as a two-run double to Jacoby Ellsbury.
Before he was finally pulled he allowed six consecutive hits, and so this season Sox hitters batted .357 against him with a .914 OPS -- and over the course of his career, five players expected to be in Boston's lineup Wednesday (Victorino, Ellsbury, Middlebrooks, Daniel Nava, and Jarrod Saltalamacchia) each has an OPS of .900 or better against Fister.
Now, numbers don't always translate to the field. There were no metrics by which anyone predicted baseball's best offense would be shut down to the extent that it has been through three games, even as good as Detroit's rotation is. And even if there had been, they would've almost certainly projected the Tigers would enter Wednesday on the verge of clinching -- not trailing two games to one.
Yet here they are, the Red Sox with a chance to take command of the ALCS, a chance to wake their bats from a premature hibernation, a chance to make their mission significantly easier over the final three games of this series -- and a chance to do all that against Doug Fister. Again, it won't be easy. But it should be easier than what they've faced so far, and easier than what they'll face the rest of the way.
And so it's a chance the Sox must seize -- or be at serious risk of Sanchez, Scherzer, and Verlander ultimately making them regret it.
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