The team with the better bullpen will represent the American League in the World Series.
Lackey’s 6 2/3-inning, 4-hit, 8-strikeout, shutout performance on Tuesday in Detroit helped Boston to a 1-0 victory and a 2-1 championship series lead, despite the almost unbelievable fact that the Red Sox are batting .133 through the three games.
Good pitching trumps good hitting in the postseason; it’s been said a trillion times. For that reason, the Tigers presented a terrifying challenge entering the ALCS because they possess as good a starting rotation as there is in baseball. The Red Sox, however, aren’t far off when pitching to their potential.
Lackey and Verlander – whose streak of 34 2/3 consecutive scoreless frames was snapped by a Mike Napoli homer in the seventh – nearly canceled each other out in Game 3, much like Jon Lester and Anibal Sanchez in the series opener. In the middle bout, Cy Young favorite Max Scherzer was far superior to Clay Buchholz, but the Sox managed to win that contest in dramatic fashion.
Six pitchers, five very impressive starts. Yet, it’s the relievers who, for better or worse, have left a defining image on each of the first three games.
In Saturday’s Game 1, Sanchez, the AL’s ERA leader, no-hit the Red Sox for six innings before giving way to the pen for the final nine outs. With two down and the Tigers up 1-0 in the ninth at Fenway, Joaquin Benoit stranded pinch-runner Quintin Berry on second by inducing a pop out from Xander Bogaerts to end the game. Had the rookie singled, that likely would have knotted the game.
In Game 2 on Sunday, Scherzer was pulled after seven frames and 108 pitches with Detroit seemingly comfortably ahead of an inept Boston offense, 5-1. Four pitchers and a David Ortiz grand slam followed and the game was tied. In the ninth, the Red Sox walked off with the 6-5 win when Rick Porcello’s inability to get an out, poor control, and bad defense behind him allowed Jarrod Saltalamacchia to even the series, courtesy of an RBI single. Not enough credit goes to Brandon Workman, Felix Doubront, and Koji Uehara for holding the Tigers at five runs after Buchholz struggled in his 5 2/3 innings.
And, in Game 3 Tuesday, Lackey was lifted in the seventh with the Sox up 1-0 and the potential tying run on first. Craig Breslow responded by getting Omar Infante to ground into a fielder’s choice. The following inning, the score the same, Junichi Tazawa got arguably the biggest out of the night when he fanned former Triple Crown winner Miguel Cabrera with runners on the corners and one down. Uehara finished the job by striking out the threatening Prince Fielder. Down went one of the majors’ best 1-2 punches and, an inning later, up 2-1 went the Red Sox overall.
Boston and Detroit are two remarkably similar clubs. Great rotations, powerhouse offenses, and a lot of winning experience sprinkled throughout their rosters.
The glaring difference is in relief, and it has shown in this series.
While both the Red Sox and Tigers ranked in MLB’s lower-third in terms of bullpen ERA during the regular season – and also struggled mightily in September – the playoffs have been another story entirely.
In this series, Boston’s Uehara, Breslow, Tazawa, Workman, and Doubront have built upon their command of the Rays in the ALDS to combine for 8 1/3 scoreless innings of 5-hit, 6-walk, and 7-strikeout ball. The bases on balls have been high, but the hurlers have escaped unscathed.
Meanwhile, Detroit has received a 9.00 ERA in this round from relievers Benoit, Porcello, Jose Veras, Al Alburquerque, Drew Smyly, and Phil Coke. In all, they’ve given up five runs in as many innings, while striking out eight and allowing seven men to reach base.
It’s easy to argue, of course, that those aforementioned Tigers arms have worked without error in two of their three games as a group. But the Sox are three-for-three, having escaped potential calamity even when trailing, which is a substantial reason as to why they’re ahead.
Following Boston’s latest win, much of the talk surrounded Lackey’s gem, Napoli’s rebound from six straight strikeouts, and Verlander’s dominant effort, but Sox players didn’t hesitate to use words like “unbelievable” and “awesome” when given the chance to describe the men in their pen.
Late tonight, maybe early Thursday morning, the Red Sox will either hold a 3-1 series lead on the Tigers or the set will be a best-of-three.
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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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