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Red Sox and Tigers: Predictably unpredictable

Posted by Adam Kaufman  October 11, 2013 02:33 AM

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It’d be hard to blame any Red Sox fans for waking up this morning with the notion of, “Oh, no.”

In the postseason, pitching – particularly starting pitching – reigns supreme, and Justin Verlander proved that again on Thursday evening when his Tigers blanked the Athletics 3-0 in a winner-take-all Game 5 of the American League Division Series.

The man who won the 2011 Cy Young and finished second in the voting a season ago twirled 8 innings of near-perfect, 2-hit, 1-walk, 111-pitch dominance to advance his Tigers to the Championship Series.

Detroit’s next target? Our beloved Boston Red Sox, a team fresh off an exciting series win of its own against the Tampa Bay Rays.

It’s now irrelevant which team fans or the Sox themselves would have preferred come into Fenway for Game 1 of the ALCS on Saturday night – the one with years of experience or the club filled with youthful exuberance – because the defending AL champs and stars of three straight trips to the semifinals are on their way to the Hub riding an unbeatable high.

The Tigers trailed their opening-round series 2-1 overall and 3-0 entering the bottom of the fifth inning of Game 4 at home on Tuesday. Another 15 outs – a significant number, sure – and their season would have been over. But over the course of a game-and-a-half, multiple time zones, and 2,398 miles, the A’s did what they always seem to do under the watch of regular-season genius Billy Beane. They ran out of gas. Somewhere in there, there’s a World War Z joke.

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The loose and free-spirited, almost Red Sox-like Athletics, will now shave their beards, while the Sox and Tigers open a series that many followers of the game started prognosticating months ago. Really, as soon as Boston shipped defensive wizard Jose Iglesias to Detroit in a three-way deal for Jake Peavy at the trade deadline – in essence, helping a contender in need of a shortstop – it seemed like a foregone conclusion. I wrote about it, giving the Tigers the edge, that very day.

Iglesias, however, will likely be little more than a footnote to the plot that lies ahead in the next 10 days.

The Tigers are a scary team, and it starts with their pitching.

As good as Jon Lester, Clay Buchholz, John Lackey, and Peavy are as a rotation, they aren’t Max Scherzer, Verlander, Anibal Sanchez, and Doug Fister, at least if everyone comes as advertised.

During the regular season, Tigers starters posted the best ERA in the league and the fourth-best in baseball at 3.44, nearly a half-run better than the Red Sox at 3.84. Detroit starters’ OPS-against of .669 was second in the game, while Boston sat 12th at .709. And how about the Tigers’ 8.63 strikeouts per 9 innings? Ridiculous, and the head of the class.

That’s not to discount the way the Red Sox are pitching in the postseason, of course, with their 3.03 team ERA, but it’s an area that will have to hold up when considering that their bats will be facing a 21-game winner and future Cy Young recipient in Scherzer, a guy who hasn’t allowed a run in his last 28 innings in Verlander, a former Sox farmhand and the AL’s ERA leader during the regular season in Sanchez, and Fister, who’s as good a fourth starter as you’ll find anywhere, even without his 14 wins.

To their credit, though, the Red Sox have shown the ability to be comparable when their foursome is on, which means a series decided by the bullpens could give Boston the advantage.

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The Sox’ pen entered the postseason with loads of questions concerning the bridge to Koji Uehara, but those queries were answered – for now, anyhow – with strikeout force against the Rays as Junichi Tazawa, Craig Breslow, et al, combined for a 1.64 ERA, holding Tampa hitters to a sterling .184 average.

For the Tigers, that was a 3.18 ERA over five games, improved but not wildly so from their 4.01 regular season mark as a bullpen, which ranked 24th in Major League Baseball. Making matters worse, Detroit has blown seven saves in the last two months as Joaquin Benoit and Jose Veras haven’t exactly been the poster boys for reliability in the late innings.

Then there are the offenses, which managed to go nose-for-nose in just about every significant category throughout the six-month playoff lead-in.

The Red Sox finished first in the majors in runs, total bases, on-base percentage, slugging percentage, and OPS, while the Tigers were second. Detroit claimed the batting average and hits categories, landing marginally in front of Boston.

The difference is that where the Sox boast top-to-bottom stability and depth, the Tigers have that plus star power. Names like Miguel Cabrera, Prince Fielder, Victor Martinez, Omar Infante, Jhonny Peralta, Torii Hunter, and Austin Jackson really shouldn’t be taken lightly. Again, Iglesias, who?

If those men are playing to their potential, the Sox’ arms could be in a lot of trouble. Fortunately, few of them have to this point in the postseason. Also, if Cabrera continues to be hampered by groin and abdominal injuries – rather than be the guy who blasted a 372-foot go-ahead homer in his team’s decisive win last night – that could change the Tigers’ lineup balance significantly. It perhaps already has, as they averaged 3.4 runs per game off the A’s, while the Sox beat up on Matt Moore, David Price, and just about every other pitcher on the Rays’ roster to the tune of 6.5 runs a contest.

Predicting this series would occur was the easy part. Predicting its outcome is another story altogether.

It no longer matters that the Tigers were one of only four teams to finish with a winning record against the Red Sox during the regular season, going 4-3, because those meetings will feel like a million years ago by the weekend. It’s all about how everything lines up now.

Boston demonstrated prior to its series with Tampa that a little extra rest doesn’t have to translate to rust, and Detroit fans have every reason to be concerned about their team’s fatigue, considering one series victory and another beginning – complete with a celebration and cross-country travel in between – are separated by only about 44 hours. And that doesn’t factor in the extra game, which results in their third starter having to take the ball in the series-opener.

If anyone will have the Motown crew gassed up and ready to go, it’s Jim Leyland, who’s won one World Series and managed teams to two others. But the edge goes to the hottest team, and that’s John Farrell’s hairy Red Sox.

Boston in seven.

After that, a meeting with a certain team from Los Angeles and a few of its expensive familiar faces who helped make this whole run possible.

Follow me on Twitter at @AdamMKaufman

This blog is not written or edited by or the Boston Globe.
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About this blog

Adam Kaufman is a writer and broadcaster who can also be heard regularly on 98.5 The Sports Hub, WBZ NewsRadio 1030, the national CBS Sports Radio Network, and broadcasting Boston College hockey games. The Massachusetts native is a Syracuse grad and a pop culture fanatic who offers a unique and entertaining look at your favorite Boston sports teams. Please don't hold his love for Jean-Claude Van Damme movies against him.

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