As baseball's Winter Meetings wind down in Orlando -- and Disney World again becomes a place where kids' dreams come true, rather than the place where the dreams of baseball fans tend to die as mere rumors -- the general consensus is that the Red Sox are in a pretty good position. They have resources remaining. Their ring-resulting success has made Boston a desirable destination again. And it has afforded them a chance to operate patiently by alleviating some of the pressure to make a splash.
At the same time, there's also agreement that the Sox still have some holes to fill. The left side of the infield needs to be fortified, be it with another regular or a role player. They could use an outfielder
Back during his days at Oregon State, even before Boston selected him with the 23rd pick of the 2005 amateur draft, Jacoby Ellsbury was playing his part as the next coming of Johnny Damon -- this time at Halloween, when he was stuck without a get-up until a friend opened his closet and pulled out a Red Sox jersey.
"It was an easy costume," the outfielder recalled. "I just needed to go out and get a beard."
A few years later, after Coco Crisp couldn't quite replicate Damon's dynamics at the top of the order, the Red Sox asked Ellsbury to play that role in real life. And for the better part of six-plus seasons, he succeeded. He was an all-star, he earned MVP votes a couple times, and, most importantly, he was a key piece of a championship. Twice, in Ellsbury's case.
Now Ellsbury will follow Damon's footsteps again, this time to New York, where the Yankees have reportedly lured him with the life-changing promise of $153 million, plus job security until he's 37 years old -- and so now it's he who the Red Sox are forced to try and replace, both in center field and at the top of the lineup.
The second part of that equation is somewhat easily resolved. Shane Victorino has 216 games of experience as a big-league leadoff hitter, and Dustin Pedroia has batted there 87 times -- 11 of which came when Ellsbury broke a bone in his foot this past September. Both might better serve the club elsewhere in the order, but both are likewise capable of leading the way if need be.
Who takes over in center field is potentially more complex. Let's take a look at some of the possibilities:
Jackie Bradley Jr. -- Barely eight months ago, after he tore up the Grapefruit League, the debate going on in these parts was about whether it was wise for the Sox to have Bradley start the season in the bigs because it could potentially allow him to reach free agency a year earlier than he would otherwise.
That proved to not be a concern, as Bradley wound up playing 80 games at Triple-A, and so he'll remain under team control for six more seasons. But let's not lose sight of the type of talent this guy was considered to be then, and should still be considered now. He struggled in his 107 major-league plate appearances over three separate stints -- batting .197 -- though in his first season at Triple-A he posted a .374 on-base percentage, which led to an .842 OPS.
That's 102 points higher than Ellsbury posted at the same level around the same age, and though Bradley isn't nearly as polished a hitter as Ellsbury is at this point, he has the plate discipline to contribute while correcting the holes that were exposed last April, and his defense in center field might well represent an immediate upgrade for the Sox.
It's probably asking too much to think he'll be ready for an everyday role from the start, but part of the reason the Sox were comfortable with Ellsbury leaving is that Bradley was waiting in the wings. Look for them to ease him into the lineup early, and depending how that goes, the job could potentially be his by the end of 2014.
Victorino -- He won a Gold Glove in right field this past season, but he has played center for most of his career, and certainly appears capable of doing it again if asked to do so.
If Bradley sits every three or four days at the start of the year, it'll be as simple as Victorino sliding over while Daniel Nava (or somebody else) plays in right. Although there also remains the possibility that the Sox could yet add a veteran to play in one of the corners, and push Victorino to the middle on a more permanent basis.
That would delay Bradley's emergence significantly, but the possibilities are intriguing. Most appealing would be Shin-Soo Choo, though he would certainly be the most expensive. Nelson Cruz would be interesting as a right-handed power bat, though he'd be an adventure defensively and is currently asking for more than the Sox would be willing to pay. And if Wednesday's reports are true that Carlos Beltran has a three-year, $48 million offer in hand, he's probably too rich for the Red Sox' blood, too.
If the Sox really don't want to overextend themselves on years or dollars, they could alternatively look to add a lower-priced, role-playing veteran -- think along the lines of Rajai Davis, Nate McLouth, or Kelly Johnson -- and add them to the mix with Victorino, Bradley, Nava, Jonny Gomes and Mike Carp.
Choo -- If the Sox were to shell out a big-dollar deal, Choo might be the leading candidate among those left on the market. He does everything well, as evidenced last season by his .423 OBP, his 21 homers, his 20 steals, his 34 doubles, his 4.22 pitches per plate appearance, and his 4.2 WAR (per Baseball-Reference). He's not a great center fielder, but he played 150 games there for a playoff team last season, so he would at least be capable in right.
There are two factors working against this possibility, however. First is that he'll be 32 at midseason, and at that age it may be unlikely that the Sox would be willing to go beyond three or four years. Second is that Choo is a Scott Boras client who is said to be seeking nine figures, and is now the most desirable outfielder available. He may get what he's looking for in terms of money and security -- and if he does it isn't likely to be in Boston.
Matt Kemp -- The Dodgers outfielder -- who is immensely talented, but is owed $128 million over the next six years -- would contradict the disciplined approach Ben Cherington has so ably applied over the past 16 months. Each of his last two seasons have been ruined by injury, and after that there's too much risk that trading for him will ultimately leave the Red Sox paying dead money at the end of the deal.
Andre Ethier -- Kemp's LA teammate is best friends with Dustin Pedroia and a decent player. But he, too, is prohibitively overpaid. If all things were equal, he'd be a nice addition, however he's due to be paid $69 million over the next four seasons. The production doesn't match the price -- unless the Dodgers' overcrowded outfield (currently with Kemp, Ethier, Yasiel Puig, and Carl Crawford) motivates them to eat a big chunk of the money he's owed.
Denard Span -- CBS Sports reported last month that the Nationals would listen to offers for the 29-year-old outfielder, and it may be worth the Sox at least inquiring. A .283 hitter with a .351 OBP, he's accustomed to batting leadoff and is due to make just $6.5 million next season, with a $9 million team option for 2015. Boston would have to give something up to get him, but they'd be getting a quality player at a good rate.
Curtis Granderson -- Ellsbury's deal squeezes him out of the Bronx, and while Granderson is currently evaluating his options on the open market, an injury-plagued 2013 campaign isn't likely to do much for his value. The Mets are said to be trying to get his signature on a three-year contract, though if the affable slugger sought to stay in the AL and try to rebuild his worth by taking a high-dollar, one-year deal the Sox could be enticing. Granderson could handle center field at Fenway, and would be a great fit for this team, but that scenario is probably a long shot given what is apparently available elsewhere.
Gerardo Parra -- The 26-year-old Diamondback has won Gold Gloves two of the past three years, playing primarily on the corners of the outfield in those seasons, and with two years of arbitration eligibility remaining, there is talk that Arizona is exploring an extension after he hit 43 doubles in 2013. He's a below-average offensive player for his career, but the Sox reportedly inquired about his availability in the middle of the 2012 season, and he could be on their radar again if the Diamondbacks can't hash out a multi-year deal.
A mystery player -- The Red Sox are a team with resources, monetarily, in the minors, and in terms of major league-ready starting pitching. If there's a player out there who the Sox want, they have the capability of putting together a package to get him. Obviously some will be unattainable no matter what the offer -- they're not prying Mike Trout from the Angels -- but the possibilities multiply as the front office gets more aggressive.
The question now, with Ellsbury gone, is how far they're willing to go.
Standing near the stall he inherited from Jason Varitek a couple of years earlier, in a chaotic clubhouse that reeked of victory's sweet stench, Jarrod Saltalamacchia was asked if he'd considered the possibility that that night -- the night the Red Sox beat the Cardinals and became world champions again -- could be his last in a Boston uniform.
"This season I've been enjoying every pitch, every out knowing it could be my last -- but tonight especially," he said. "I was just looking at the stands, and seeing everybody, just looking at the jersey and enjoying every minute of it. Hopefully I can be back."
Part of his desire to be back, he explained, was based on the home he'd found at Fenway Park after a tough stint in Texas. Billed as a big-time prospect even before he broke into the big leagues on his 22nd birthday, he was a major piece of the package the Braves sent the Rangers for Mark Teixeira, though when he struggled to establish himself with his new organization he was back in the minors full-time by age 25 -- and that's when the Red Sox made a trade that would afford him another opportunity.
"It saved my career," Saltalamacchia said of the 2010 deadline-day swap. "I was kind of stuck in a spot where I didn't feel I was wanted or needed or going to be able to go anywhere. Then I came over here and it was just night and day. I felt wanted, I felt they knew what I was capable of doing. They actually gave me a chance. I can't thank these guys enough."
Tuesday, though, it became apparent that the Red Sox no longer wanted Saltalamacchia -- at least not for the next three years, and not at the price he figured to command after the best season of his career. There are a couple of quality catching prospects in the pipeline, and rather than commit to the 28-year-old, they opted to entrust the position to a pair of 37-year-old veterans for 2014, and reevaluate their options again next winter.
Whether Saltalamacchia even wanted to stay has been called into question, and rightfully so. He lost his starting job after his throwing error ended Game 3 of the World Series, and put the Sox in a 2-1 hole. David Ross started the next three games, and Boston won them all.
That made Saltalamacchia look expendable, and it's only natural if he was disappointed that after catching 242 games over the past two seasons, he was on the bench when the club climbed to the summit of its sport -- but from this seat, the timing says everything: Tuesday morning it's revealed that A.J. Pierzynski will sign with the Red Sox; Tuesday evening comes word that Saltalamacchia is inking a deal with the Marlins. Based on that, it sure would seem as though the player waited until the door was definitively shut in Boston before dedicating his future to Miami.
More important than Saltalamacchia's own desires, though, are the questions about whether this was the right decision for the Red Sox. Most immediate is the one that asks, Is it wise to count on two catchers who were in high school before Xander Bogaerts was born, one of whom has caught more than 14,000 major-league innings, and another who missed months this past year because of two concussions?
But in the bigger picture, it's worth asking whether the Sox will regret letting go of a hitter who this past season became one of 15 catchers since 1901 to slug 40 doubles, and who was among the top three offensive catchers in the American League this year, and whether they might have misjudged the market for Saltalamacchia's services.
As it turned out, reports indicate that the agreement with his hometown Marlins will pay him $21 million over three seasons -- equating to an annual value of $7 million. After the money paid to the likes of Brian McCann and Carlos Ruiz, most (maybe including the Sox) were anticipating the price would be higher than that for Saltalamacchia, who was easily worth that much this past season, when Baseball-Reference calculated his WAR to be 2.9. He was probably worth that in 2012, too, when his WAR was 1.4.
We don't know now what Saltalamacchia will be worth in 2014 -- or, perhaps more importantly, in 2016. But one way to project is to look at what players whose offensive careers most closely compare to his through age 28 have done after reaching that age.
Again according to Baseball-Reference, that list of comparables is led by Jody Davis, the ex-Cub and Brave who earned MVP votes and a Gold Glove award in 1986, at age 29. More contemporarily, the comparisons also include John Buck (at No. 2), Ramon Hernandez, and Michael Barrett.
Of the 10 players most comparable to Saltalamacchia, all played at least three more years in the majors, and played five more years on average. Only a couple have played the remainder of their careers with an OPS+ lower than 90, so for the most part they've all been right around the league average -- as has Saltalamacchia, owner of an OPS+ of 95. And that's only one of the categories in which the expectations Saltalamacchia has set for himself based on his performance to this point are close to what history's 10 most comparable hitters have done henceforth.
Here's how the numbers compare, based on average per 162 games:
The two biggest differences come in terms of strikeouts and slugging percentage, but over the past couple seasons the second has helped to justify the first in Saltalamacchia's case. And while these comparisons don't account for defense (beyond purely position) in their calculations, WAR totals do, and Ed Hermann -- a backup by the mid-1970s -- was the only negative player after age 28 on Saltalamacchia's list of comparables. Meanwhile, the average player in that group posted a WAR of 4.6 after turning 29.
So, then, there's a basis to believe Saltalamacchia will be an average or slightly above average player for the next few years. And a player of that caliber, at an important position, who is familiar with both the city and the pitching staff, and who is young but experienced, would seem to be worth the price of $7 million per season. Particularly for a team with the resources of the Red Sox.
Obviously Boston's brass doesn't agree, or at least it doesn't think he'll represent as good a value as the alternatives by the time he's turning 31, and guys like Christian Vazquez and Blake Swihart are ready for The Show. Though Pierzynski is a temporary stopgap, they're clearly looking longer-term in this decision.
And have left Saltalamacchia -- whether he likes it or not -- looking at Fenway, its fans, its home jerseys, from the outside.
A year ago it took the Red Sox nearly two months before they were officially able to get Mike Napoli's signature on a new contract. He visited Boston in November. He agreed to a three-year deal in early December. Then it was well into mid-January before he and the team reached agreement on a restructured one-year deal that was reduced from its original form because the club was uncomfortable a hip condition.
A year later, it's safe to say Napoli was worth the wait -- and the $13 million the Sox paid him. He slugged 23 homers and knocked in 92 runs over 139 games, then added a few more big hits during the playoff run that resulted in the franchise's third World Series championship since 2004. The hip was never an issue, and he proved to be a quality first baseman in addition to being a middle-of-the-order bat.
So this time the Sox should make every effort to get him to sign as soon as possible. And not only because they want the player back, but because whether or not Napoli is in the mix figures to have a significant impact on the direction the team takes this winter.
It won't be quite as easy as it could've been, now that Napoli has officially declined the Sox' $14.1 million qualifying offer, and instead opted to let free agency set his market value. Should Napoli get his socks -- or, in this case, Sox -- knocked off by somebody, and decide to follow that payday elsewhere, the Sox would obviously have a vacancy at first base, and would likely be looking to find a right-handed bat to platoon with Mike Carp.
But the fallout from a decision on Napoli's future would affect more than merely his own position. For instance, if Napoli were to leave, the Sox would lose their biggest source of right-handed power -- which has become something of a commodity within the game, and which has particular use in this lineup because it can be wielded to protect David Ortiz in the batting order. The designated hitter was intentionally walked a major-league leading 27 times this season; if it's Carp, or Jonny Gomes, or Daniel Nava hitting behind him every day, that number stands to rise.
The Sox could theoretically take a chance on 37-year-old Paul Konerko, or perhaps 32-year-old Corey Hart (who didn't play this past season due to a knee injury), but there's really not a lot of appeal among the free-agent first basemen available, so they might be more likely to instead look to make a trade. And that's where things could get interesting.
Of the names that have been said to be available, maybe the most logical fit for the Sox is the Angels' Mark Trumbo. He's hit 95 homers over the past three seasons, he has played the outfield as well, and his contract is bound to arbitration for the next three years -- but given those credentials any team looking for power will be interested in adding him at age 27, and so, even as imperfect and unpolished a hitter as he is, the price is likely to be steep.
Los Angeles' primary motivation in making him available is to upgrade its pitching, and in that case, Boston could be a match. At this point the Sox have six established big-league starters, and guys like Allen Webster, Rubby De La Rosa, and Anthony Ranaudo aren't far away. Then there are others like Brandon Workman and Drake Britton, whose roles for next season and beyond are still somewhat unknown.
The Sox have the requisite resources to be comfortable with sending the Angels a package that includes Felix Doubront as well as a decent pitching prospect, and the Globe's Nick Cafardo has also suggested that with LA also looking for a third baseman, the Angels could be interested in Will Middlebrooks, too.
Even if Trumbo is moved to another team, though, Middlebrooks' status would figure to be unresolved until Napoli's future is determined -- because he represents the club's best internal hope of replacing Napoli's production. Even in a season where he twice lost his starting job, and played 45 games at Triple-A, he finished third on the team with 17 home runs. Through 169 big-league games, he's blasted 32 homers and has 133 RBIs. His on-base percentage is a much-to-be-desired .294, though on a per-162-game basis his power numbers are basically equivalent to Napoli's.
Keep in mind, too, that Middlebrooks is also seven years younger, and power numbers tend to get better as a batter matures in his late-20s. So there's a good chance that if Napoli leaves this winter, Middlebrooks will be capable of becoming that legitimate, middle-of-the-order, right-handed power bat over the next couple of years.
A below-average third baseman this year, he could also make the move over to first base, and the Sox could shift Xander Bogaerts to third and offer Stephen Drew a multi-year deal to remain at short until Garin Cecchini is ready to take over the hot corner on an everyday basis.
The Sox could also bring back Drew as a defensive stopgap if Napoli re-signs, and then trade Middlebrooks to help fill another need -- but they should do neither until they know whether or not Napoli is part of the plan.
Bringing back Drew and Napoli, while keeping Middlebrooks within the organization, would not be a good use of the roster and resources if Bogaerts is really going to get his opportunity to be a big-league regular. Conversely, trading Middlebrooks while letting Drew or Napoli exit would leave them needing to plug a hole at one of the two corner infield positions at a time when the alternatives aren't enticing and a trade would be expensive.
So the Sox are at risk of being stuck with no clear plan for at least one starting position, and a big spot in their batting order -- but that risk can be quickly negated if they simply act swiftly on Napoli. While accepting his Executive of the Year honors, Sox GM Ben Cherington said Monday that his team "absolutely" wants Napoli back. He praised the first baseman and his agent for their transparency in the early stages of this process. And Napoli indicated a few times near the end of the season that his desire is to stay in Boston.
Both sides want it to happen, and both sides are plenty familiar with each other -- so there's no sense in messing around. Leave room for negotiation, sure, but the Sox should be aggressive in their offer(s) to Napoli and try to gauge whether they're thinking the same way in terms of his market value. If they are, Sox brass should push to make a deal. If they're not, the club should let it be known that the team is prepared to move on. Then, if they must, they should do just that.
No hemming. No hawing. No long, drawn-out back and forth. Too many other decisions depend on how the Napoli negotiations play out to let them linger fpr a few weeks, or even a month -- let alone two.
"Every little thing," they yelled, "gonna be all right."
But by the time Victorino got to third base, after clearing the bases with a double and taking 90 more feet as Jonny Gomes slid safely into the plate, those words had come to be more than a fun moment or a new coming-together feature of the Fenway experience. They'd come to encapsulate the mentality of Red Sox fans in this era.
A decade ago -- and for most of the 86 years before that -- Fenway in that moment would've been filled with fans wondering what was going to go wrong. How they were going to blow it. What brutal error, or dreadful decision, or act of God was going to intervene.
But those days are gone. As Victorino came up in the third, then again when he knocked a run-scoring single in the fourth, the place erupted with a sense that a third title in 10 seasons was coming to Boston. The first two having erased so much of the fretting in these circumstances, there was confidence. There was anticipation.
There was a feeling that, indeed, every little thing gonna be all right.
"I had a lot of confidence," Victorino said, discussing the approach he took throughout his first season in Boston. "The pieces of the puzzle were here. The guys that were added to that puzzle, we were just trying to be complementary players. I didn't come with the mindset that I'm going to be this guy, that guy. All of us, we went with the mindset that we were going to be one team. We're going to go out there, we 're going to have fun.
"And this year we're the world champs."
They're a different breed of world champ than either of the two title winners that preceded them in this century, that's for sure. But what's less certain -- and will likely be a subject of debate over the hot stove this winter -- is how the three championship clubs compare to each other, and, ultimately, which is the best team of the bunch.
In some ways it's an unanswerable question, considering baseball has transitioned to another era since Boston boarded the duck boats in 2004, even though the time span in question is only nine years. Numbers must be viewed in a completely different context because of testing for performance-enhancing drugs, and different parity-driven rules have changed the way rosters are built.
The case could be made the unexpected nature of this latest title separates it from the others, and David Ortiz, the only player to be part of all three clubs, did just that after collecting MVP honors. "This is a team that we have a lot of players with heart," he said. "We probably don't have the talent that we have in '07 and '04, but we have guys that are capable to stay focused and do the little things. And when you win with a ballclub like that, that's special."
But is it the most special? Is 2013 the best team? Was that 2004 team really the most talented? We'll let you draw your own conclusions, but here's a look at some of the various factors you may want to consider as you do. Click on each category to open up a comparison between the three teams, and keep in mind that stats are for the regular season (unless noted).
|Analysis: We remember the 2004 champs as an offensive juggernaut, and justifiably so. The lineup was stacked from top to bottom, and with Ortiz and Manny Ramirez the Nos. 3-4 hitters, the middle was pretty darn good, too. But while the 2013 lineup may not have been as loaded, it was arguably better in relation to what the rest of the league had to offer. You can see above that this year's team had a higher OPS+, and while it scored 96 fewer runs, the 2013 team scored 0.94 runs per game more than the average AL team, which equates to 22 percent; the 2004 team scored 0.85 runs per game more than the average AL team, which equates to 17 percent. When factoring era into the equation, it's hardly absurd to say the 2013 team had the best offense of the three.|
|Quality start %||53||52||59|
|Analysis: The common theme here is that all three clubs received a career year from their closer, and all three of those relievers piled up high strikeout-to-walk ratios. The 2007 team had the best bullpen, led by Jonathan Papelbon and Hideki Okajima, but the best overall staff probably goes to 2004. That group had three starters post an ERA+ of at least 120 (Curt Schilling, Pedro Martinez, and Bronson Arroyo), had five hurlers make at least 29 starts, and had a good, reliable cast of veteran relievers.|
|Analysis: The 2007 and 2013 were similar defensively, both decent -- and both far ahead of the 2004 team, whose stats live up to the memory that it was something of a slow-pitch softball team. It made 38 more errors during the regular season, then made eight more over the first two games of the World Series. Suffice it to say, run prevention wasn't the priority back then. (Admittedly, these numbers don't take into account the runs this year's Red Sox saved themselves by shifting far more often than either of those two earlier iterations did.)|
|Extra base %||34||34||39|
|Analysis: Led by a remarkable 52-for-56 from Jacoby Ellsbury, much was made of the Sox' success rate when attempting to steal bases this season, but the 2007 team was a bit underrated in that regard, successfully swiping four of every five prospective bags. What the 2013 club did better than the others was take the extra base, as 39 percent of the time they moved up two bases on a single or three bases on a double. They were aggressive -- somewhat overly at times early in the year -- but they put pressure on defenses, and more often than not, it paid off.|
|Cy Young types*||4||2||2|
|Analysis: First things first: The WAR numbers are based on the Baseball-Reference calculation; "All-Stars" reflect the number of players named to the AL All-Star team that season; "Previous All-Stars" reflect the number of players who'd been named to an All-Star team before that season; and both "MVP types" and "Cy Young types" refer to the number of players on the team that received votes for those awards over the prior three seasons (so, for this year, in 2010, '11, or '12).|
Now, you'll see that the WAR numbers suggest the 2007 team was the most balanced between offense and defense as far as value, and the proven experience of the 2013 team is illustrated in an impressive 13 players who'd previously been All-Stars, but it may have been the 2004 team that had the most players in (or at least at the end of) their prime. That club had nine players who'd received MVP votes between 2001-03, and four pitchers who'd merited Cy Young consideration over that span. That's a lot of star power.
|Days in 1st||45||172||164|
|Worst month||11-14 (June)||13-14 (June)||15-15 (May)|
|Best month||21-7 (August)||20-8 (May)||18-8 (April)|
|Analysis: The progression of the season was most similar between the 2007 and 2013 teams -- though that the 98-win Red Sox at one point trailed by 10.5 games in the division speaks to how good the Yankees were, and how hot Boston got late. Give the 2013 team credit, too, for being the only of the three clubs not to suffer at least one losing month.|
|Analysis: The most impressive indication of the one-day-at-a-time approach of this year's Red Sox is that they never let their struggles roll into each other, and thus never lost more than three games in a row. The 2007 team was nearly as consistent, losing four straight three times, and never letting it get to five, while the 2004 champs had a knack for carrying momentum forward. They won 10 in a row at one point, and won at least five straight on five different occasions.|
|1-run games||1 (1-0)||2 (2-0)||6 (3-3)|
|2-run games||5 (4-1)||1 (0-1)||3 (2-1)|
|Analysis: The 2004 team beat the 101-win Yankees in the ALCS, then the 105-win Cardinals in the World Series. That's darn impressive. So is the fact that although both were pushed to seven games in the league championship series, both of Boston's two earlier title winners swept two series. However, when adding together where their three opponents ranked among major-league teams in runs scored/allowed during the regular season, the 2013 team faced the best collection of offenses and pitching staffs. The Tigers and Cardinals were the second- and third-best offenses in baseball this season, while the Rays were 12th. St. Louis was No. 5 in runs allowed, Detroit was No. 7, and Tampa Bay was No. 11. The 2013 team was certainly tested.|
|Analysis: To illustrate the difference nine years later, know that the '04 team's 4.47 postseason ERA was just 0.05 away from being the best in those playoffs -- while three teams finished this postseason with an ERA of 2.90 or better, including the top-ranked Sox. Of the three champions, the team that had the best postseason was the 2007 club, which finished with the highest batting average, the second-best ERA, was successful in all nine of its steal attempts, and led all playoff teams in defensive efficiency. Of the three runs, that middle one may ultimately become the afterthought. But, despite the valiant efforts of the Indians, was the most dominant.|
If last Halloween someone had come to your door and told you that the Red Sox would at this point be one victory away from winning the World Series, and that Red Sox Nation would feel good about the chances of John Lackey securing that clincher, you'd have sooner believed the trick-or-treater in the red cape really was Superman.
But here we are. Boston is one win away from becoming the second team in baseball history to go from worst to first in a single season, and completing a redemption story like few others in the history of sports -- so let's look at five key factors that could determine if the fairy tale does indeed become reality in Wednesday night's Game 6...
1. Remain patient against Michael Wacha, and make him challenge.
The Cardinals' remarkable rookie had issued a total of just four walks over his three starts in the National League portion of these playoffs -- and one of those was intentional -- but the Red Sox worked him for four free passes the first time they faced him.
It wasn't that Wacha was wild, or that he was afraid of challenging Sox hitters. He threw 42.1 percent of his pitches within the strike zone -- which is a higher rate than his season average, and higher than in any start since an Aug. 10 outing against the Cubs.
It was more that the Sox did a better job of laying off his changeup than either the Pirates or Dodgers did, and stuck to their patient approach. Among his 114 pitches, Wacha threw a career-high 39 changeups, but Boston offered at only 18 of them, or 46.2 percent. In two NLCS starts, Los Angeles swung 64.2 percent of the time he changed speeds. And in his NLDS start, Pittsburgh hacked at 58.8 percent.
The Red Sox were the best fastball-hitting team in baseball this season, so even though Wacha amped it up to as high as 97 mph in Game 2, and lived around 94 that night, he and catcher Yadier Molina are likely to stick with the strategy based around using his heater to get ahead, then trying to finish hitters and get outs with the change (and the occasional curveball, as well). At Fenway last week, Wacha threw his changeup on 19 of the 30 pitches he threw with two strikes, but only 20 of the 84 pitches he threw with one or no strikes.
So the Sox' task is to get Wacha in situations where he's throwing a predictable fastball, and can't force the Sox into missed swings or weak contact by chasing his offspeed stuff outside the zone. And they must be ready to take advantage when he leaves that fastball over the plate. They were willing to wait him out in Game 2 -- only two of the first 17 Sox hitters swung at the first pitch they saw, and only four of 24 hacked right away -- so he only managed just one of the 1-2-3 innings that have become a hallmark of his dominance this October. He was done after six innings.
And as good as the Cardinals' bullpen is, the Sox will take their chances if they're able to oust Wacha so early again.
2. Hope Lackey does what Lackey does.
In terms of the circumstances and the matchup, it's hard to envision a scenario set up better for Lackey.
The pressure shouldn't be overwhelming, not after making his first relief appearance in a decade during the eighth inning of a tight contest in Game 4, and not after already having pitched a World Series clincher back in 2002.
He's pitching amid the comforts of Fenway Park, where he was excellent in Game 2, and has been great all season en route to a 2.47 ERA, a .236 opponents' batting average, and a 1.03 WHIP -- all of which are dramatically better numbers than what he's delivered on the road.
And he's pitching to a lineup full of players against which he's had previous success. Nobody in the Cardinal lineup has more than one hit against Lackey in his lifetime, with Carlos Beltran at 1-for-12 and Matt Holliday at 1-for-10 in the middle of the order.
Holliday, of course, got that hit in Game 2 -- a triple to the triangle that bounded by Jacoby Ellsbury and led to St. Louis' first run. However, Lackey has otherwise controlled the Cards' most dangerous bat. And throughout the season he's done a good job in limiting damage (in part because 22 of the 26 homers he allowed were solo shots).
If that remains true, and he capitalizes on his experience in these big spots, and in this ballpark, he should give the Sox what they need.
3. Fill the role Craig Breslow has played after Lackey.
John Farrell has kept Lackey on a relatively short leash in his starts, despite their general effectiveness. In fact, Lackey hasn't yet hit the 100-pitch mark in this postseason.
But in all three of those starting performances it was Breslow who came in to replace Lackey on the mound -- and with Breslow's recent ineffectiveness, it will be interesting to see if the manager lets Lackey pitch his way out of potential trouble in the middle innings, or if he turns to another member of his relief corps to pick up the slack in a pressure spot.
Breslow has retired one of the seven hitters he's faced in this series, and dating back to the start of the Detroit series he's walked six and yielded four hits over 3.2 innings. Unless Farrell is blindly loyal he's got to go in a different direction, which could be Felix Doubront if the manager wants to go with a lefty, or it could be Junichi Tazawa or Brandon Workman if the matchup splits are less relevant.
Either way, Breslow has recorded some very important outs for the Sox this year and this postseason -- especially following up Lackey. And Farrell will need to figure out how he's going to get those outs in Game 6.
4. Xander Bogaerts.
If David Ortiz wasn't in the midst of what may be the greatest World Series performance of all-time, the Red Sox' most dangerous hitter might be their 21-year-old third baseman.
Bogaerts has five hits and a walk in his last 11 plate appearances, boosting his OPS to 1.032 during the postseason. He's reaching base 46.7 percent of the time he comes to bat, and with those numbers Sox brass should give serious thought to moving him up in the order for Game 6, maybe to second (if Shane Victorino slides down in his return), or maybe even to fifth, where he could help Mike Napoli protect Ortiz.
It wouldn't be a bad idea to leave him as a presence near the bottom of the order, either. But no matter where he hits, he's a guy the Sox want to see walking to the plate in a big spot. Despite a total of 80 big-league plate appearances, they trust him as much as almost anyone at this point.
And with the way he's going there's a chance that he just might end a season that began in Portland by playing a significant part in the game that sees Boston win the World Series.
5. Keep Thursday in mind.
At this point, the Sox would love to get this over with Wednesday. Win the series in six. Seize the momentum created by winning twice in St. Louis. Celebrate all night. Not have to worry about a winner-take-all Game 7.
But they must remain mindful of that possibility.
Everything done in the course of Game 6 should be done in an effort to win that game -- though no decision should be reckless enough that it could potentially compromise the club's chances of winning the series if it gets to Thursday.
The biggest advantage a team earns by going up 3-2 at this point is that it gets two chances to win one game, but a major part of that advantage is that it spares the series-leading club from some of the desperation that's being felt and considered on the other side.
The Cardinals and Mike Matheny need to do whatever it takes to see tomorrow, so they can burn through pitchers, and put their players in crazy positions, and take an all-hands-on-deck approach. But Farrell and his staff should resist the urge to do the same. They've earned the right to be calm, and to retain the urgent levelheadedness that's put them here.
The goal isn't necessarily to win tonight. It's to win the World Series. And the Red Sox should keep that in mind in every choice they make.
When the greatest ever to play his position -- on this planet or any other -- is batting .733 on baseball's biggest stage, and when a pitcher twice outduels another of the game's elite with the two best starts of an already stellar postseason career, it commands attention.
In fact, if the Red Sox can complete this beyond-words odyssey with one more magical victory, nobody will object if it's decided that David Ortiz and Jon Lester should share the honors as World Series MVP. No New England sports fan will soon forget what the slugger has done through this series, or what the southpaw did in Game 5, particularly if millions are watching as the duck boats roll through downtown Boston this weekend.
But it shouldn't be forgotten, either, that with the World Series tied at two games apiece, and Game 5 tied at one in the top of the seventh, both Ortiz's RBI double and Lester's 23 outs of one-run ball might've easily gone to waste if it hadn't been for the impressive -- and, frankly, improbable -- rally put together by a bottom of the Boston lineup that had to that point been mostly miserable over the course of this best-of-seven.
That it began with Xander Bogaerts isn't entirely surprising -- beyond the fact that he began the season as a 20-year-old shortstop at Double-A, and is now the 21-year-old third baseman for the American League champs. He's struck out a bunch against St. Louis, but his bouncer through the middle was at that point his fifth hit in his last 10 at-bats, and his second of the night against Cardinals' ace Adam Wainwright.
Rather, the unforeseen really began when the rookie got to first, and Stephen Drew stepped into the box lugging with him the frustrations of a 4-for-49 slump. Dating back to the fourth game of the ALCS he had just one hit in 25 at-bats, that coming when the Cardinals' failure to communicate allowed a hapless fly ball to fall in front of the mound. and it had been 36 plate appearances since he worked a walk.
St. Louis starter Adam Wainwright hadn't walked anyone, his command consistent with numbers that showed him having allowing fewer walks per nine innings than all but two qualifying pitchers in the major leagues this season. And so once Drew took a strike, then fouled off a cut fastball to leave the battle a ball and two strikes, it looked as though Wainwright had the shortstop right where he wanted him.
Drew was a below-average hitter against curveballs this season, while the statistics say Wainwright has the second-best curveball in all of baseball -- and, regardless of the pitch type, only a couple starting pitchers in all the bigs entice more batters to swing at balls outside the strike zone. Once he missed his chance to hit the cutter, and got behind in the count, Drew looked like a sitting duck given his struggles of late.
His chances didn't seem much better when he laid off Wainwright's wicked curve to pull even, or, really, when he laid off another hook to run the count full. Plate discipline had not been a particular strength while striking out in 16 of his previous 33 at-bats -- yet when Wainwright called upon Uncle Charlie again with the count at 3-and-2, Drew left the bat on his shoulder as the ball broke down and away, laying off the pitch that had got him punched out just five innings earlier, and taking first base.
That brought David Ross to the plate with men on first and second, and with a lot of responsibility if the Red Sox were to seize this opportunity against a pitcher who typically gets tougher to hit as the game gets later. Lester was on deck, and the bullpen was quiet.
After two nights of heavily taxing his relief corps, and with the cruising lefty still at a low pitch count, Farrell had decided to leave he'd remain on the mound. Even if it meant a guy who's never had a hit in the major leagues would have to bat. If Ross made an out, then, the runners would most likely both be stranded. And his battle with Wainwright didn't start well. Like Drew, Ross fell behind 1-and-2.
During the regular season, Ross hit .077 whenever the count reached that point, and .135 with two strikes in general. Wainwright allowed opponents a .176 average after the count got to 1-and-2, and .159 with two strikes. Again, advantage Cardinals.
Again, Wainwright went to his devastating curveball.
And again, the Red Sox were ready for it. Ross stayed back just long enough that he kept fair a line drive he yanked down the left field line, and as it took a big hop into the seats Bogaerts was granted home. Boston had a lead, plus two more runners in scoring position, at second and third.
"I always defer to my teammates," Ross said. "Xander Bogaerts is maybe one of the best young players I've seen, the professional at‑bats he's thrown on this stage, it boggles my mind. What I would be doing as a 21‑year‑old in the World Series, I can't even ‑‑ I would be in awe. And that guy is having great at‑bats. Adam Wainwright is one of the best pitchers in baseball, and what a great at‑bat he was having.
"And Dirt has been scuffling a little bit. Got a really good at‑bat from him to walk, and just I think a little back‑up curveball that I hit down the line. That felt really good."
That made Farrell's decision to let Lester hit for himself a little more palatable, and although Wainwright did his job by retiring his counterpart, Jacoby Ellsbury then further diminished the chance the Sox would come to regret the choice not to reach for the throat by pinch-hitting for the pitcher.
Only 18 of 78 hitters Wainwright faced after throwing his 100th pitch reached base this season, and to that point Ellsbury was 3-for-19 in the series, having struck out in three of his four previous at-bats against the Cards' ace. But he took an aggressive cut at an 0-1 fastball the pitcher left elevated, and served Wainwright's 107th pitch into center.
Drew scored without a problem, and though Ross was thrown out at the plate trying to come all the way around from second, the Sox had a 3-1 lead. Nine outs later that would be good enough for a 3-2 advantage in the series. And now the Sox head home needing to win one of two at Fenway Park to be crowned as World Series champions.
Thanks to Ortiz, Lester -- and a cast of heroes as unlikely as this whole run has been from the beginning.
With a wacky and wild series down to a best-of-three, a look at some of what could factor in as the Sox attempt to move within one win of a world title...
1. Get to Adam Wainwright early -- again.
The Sox can't expect to jump on Wainwright the way they did in Game 1, when an error by shortstop Pete Kozma enabled a three-run rally, then Boston tacked on two more in the second thanks in part to more sloppy St. Louis defense. But they may still get their best opportunities early.
Wainwright posted a 6.09 ERA and allowed opponents to bat .326 against him in the first inning this season, both by far the worst numbers of any frame. His ERA was a rather pedestrian 3.92 over the first three innings, but then dropped to 2.49 in innings 4-6, and 1.67 in innings 7-9.
Seven times this season he's surrendered at least four runs in an outing -- and on five of those occasions the opponents struck for at least one in the opening frame. The Sox have started games notoriously slowly throughout this postseason, but Monday night it's important that they score early not only because it's when the ace-like Wainwright is most vulnerable, but because after two taxing contests they do not want to put themselves in a position where for the sake of offense they need to pinch-hit for starting pitcher Jon Lester earlier than they'd prefer.
2. Lester needs to go deep in the game.
Felix Doubront has thrown almost five innings the past two nights, Koji Uehara and Junichi Tazawa have pitched in both of those games, as well, Craig Breslow has struggled lately, Franklin Morales isn't reliable in high-leverage spots, and with no off-day between it's unlikely a starter could come to the rescue like John Lackey did in Game 4.
Therefore the Boston bullpen in the middle innings is basically Brandon Workman and the little-used Ryan Dempster, so it would be enormous if Lester was able to come anywhere close to the 7.2 innings he completed in Game 1, or even to pitch into the seventh inning, as he has in three of his four postseason starts.
The one outlier was his outing in Detroit, where he allowed seven hits and two runs over 5.1 innings, and what's a bit concerning about that one is that it's the only start Lester has made during these playoffs on the normal four days of rest. During the regular season, Lester's ERA was 4.24 with four days between starts -- and 2.91 with five days between appearances.
He takes the mound in Game 5 just four days removed from his previous game.
3. Play good defense.
This should be a given in a matchup of the two best teams in baseball, but thus far the momentum of this series has swung toward whichever team was sharper with its gloves. Just make the routine plays, make smart decisions defensively, and not beat themselves with mistakes, they should be in a good position.
The Cardinals have yet to beat them without being aided greatly by an errant throw that skipped down the left-field line. Perhaps Uehara's pickoff of Kolten Wong to end Game 4 is an indication of the defensive headiness to come for Boston.
4. Do a better job with the bottom of the Cardinals' lineup.
David Freese, Daniel Descalso, Jon Jay, and Kozma have in some combination comprised the Nos. 6-8 spots in the Cardinals' lineup the past couple of games. And combined they're 3-for-39 in the series.
But despite that .077 average, Red Sox pitching has issued eight walks to those four batters, and in doing so has put itself in positions where it's forced to reckon with the likes of Carlos Beltran and Matt Holliday more often than it might otherwise. Particularly in National League rules, a walk to that part of the order could mean the difference between the Cardinals getting to begin the next inning with their leadoff man or with their pitcher, so even when the walks don't lead directly to runs, they do have consequences.
For Game 5 in particular, Shane Robinson will sub in for Jay against the left-handed Lester, and he'll hit second, so first baseman Matt Adams slide down to seventh. He's got some pop -- but the point remains. He's 3-for-17 in the series, and he hit .208 against southpaws this season. He's a guy the Sox should get out.
5. Protect David Ortiz.
With Shane Victorino missing his second straight games with a back issue, and the No. 2 hole thus vacated, John Farrell shuffled his lineup up a bit in an effort to give David Ortiz some additional protection after the Cardinals began to suggest they're done pitching to the slugger who's batting .727 in the series.
Dustin Pedroia will bat second, and Ortiz will bat third, so it'll be up to Jonny Gomes (batting fourth) and Daniel Nava (batting fifth) to make sure Big Papi gets his pitches. They've both done that job thus far in this series, with Gomes following an Ortiz walk with a three-run homer on Sunday, and Nava driving in two runs when batting right behind Ortiz in Saturday's game -- but St. Louis is still likely to make those two outfielders prove they can do so against Wainwright before the big righty gives Ortiz a chance to beat him.
By the organization's own recent standards, the Red Sox weren't a team that hit a lot of home runs for much of this season. They finished with 178, which ranked fifth in the American League, but that was buoyed by the 39 they hit in September, and the eight they hit on a single night against Detroit. But through 140 games they'd gone deep 140 times, and no Boston team has slugged as few as a homer per game since Butch Hobson's underwhelming bunch in 1993.
In the postseason, the homers have -- naturally, given the quality of the competition standing on the mound -- been even fewer and farther between. During the regular season, the Sox averaged a homer every 31.7 at-bats; this postseason it's been every 50.3 at-bats.
But, as they say, timing is everything.
When the Cardinals blatantly pitched around David Ortiz in the sixth inning of a tie game Sunday night -- despite the fact that Dustin Pedroia already occupied first base -- and Jonny Gomes sent a 387-foot blast to the visitors' bullpen, the emergency left fielder not only gave Boston a 4-1 lead, but he presented the latest example of the decisive weapon the long ball has been for the Sox during this postseason.
The simplest way to put it is this: In these playoffs, the Red Sox are 7-1 when they homer in a game; they're just 2-4 when they don't.
And looking at those blasts a little bit closer, Baseball-Reference's win expectancy calculations show that Boston's home runs haven't merely been part of those victories, they've been among the primary reasons why the club is just two triumphs away from celebrating a World Series championship.
The calculations aim to figure out how much the result of each play in a game changes a team's probability of winning that contest, based on the score and the situation at the point the play begins and when the play ends.
For example, Gomes' circuit clout Sunday night improved the Red Sox' probability of winning from 49 percent to 87 percent. In one mighty swing, he improved his team's chance of winning by 38 percent.
And that's been the way these Sox have been getting it done of late. Thus far in the postseason, the Sox have notched six hits that improved their win expectancy by at least 20 percent -- and five of those have been homers. Meanwhile, four hits have improved their likelihood by at least 33 percent. And all four of them have left the yard.
Five of their nine blasts this postseason have taken the Sox from a probability of 50-50 or worse to a point where they were favored. One rather famously tied the game -- David Ortiz's Game 2 grand slam in the ALCS -- while Gomes' shot Sunday was the sixth that has given the Sox the lead, and the third that has ultimately supplied the game-winning run.
Conversely, only two of their homers have impacted the Sox' win probability by less than 5 percent. In both of those cases, they came in the late innings, during an at-bat Boston began with a 94 percent likelihood of winning anyway. And the only time they've lost when homering was Game 2 of this series against St. Louis, when the Cardinals used the Sox' defensive sloppiness to comeback against the bullpen.
Maybe it's a coincidence. But maybe -- particularly in conjunction with the characteristics this team has shown all year -- it's not. All year this team has been the type that has thrived in the moment, that has battled resiliently. It's a team that has been defined by its relentlessness, its flair for the dramatic, and its willingness to fight. It's a team that hasn't hit a ton of home runs, but when it's been pushed up against the wall, it's come out swinging.
And, this postseason, swinging for the fences.
It'll be a while before Red Sox Nation moves on from the wild finish to an exhilarating Game 3, but we try by looking ahead to the keys for Game 4.
1. Better manage the conditions of playing under NL rules.
As the series shifted from Boston to St. Louis, and from American League rules to National League rules, the assumption was that the biggest problem it would create for the Red Sox would be the loss of the designated hitter in the middle of their lineup.
In Game 3, however, the disadvantage appeared to be biggest in the dugout, where John Farrell -- who has never coached for or managed an NL team -- made a sequence of crucial mistakes that made him and his coaching staff look unable to keep up with the speed of the game as conditions changed in the late innings.
Individual moves can be second-guessed, and there was plenty to question in that regard, so whether it was wise to lift defensive asset Stephen Drew in the seventh inning of a tie game, or to pinch-hit for Felix Doubront with nobody on and two out while the pitcher was rolling, or to not use Mike Napoli at any point can all be justified.
But the most damning indication that the Sox staff was unprepared was the mistake Farrell admitted to afterward. With reliever Brandon Workman due up second in the ninth inning, and the game tied, there was an obvious and easy opportunity for the Sox to avoid having to have Workman come to bat -- and, in fact, it would've also left Boston with better defense behind the plate and its best relief pitcher on the mound. It was a win-win-win.
Jarrod Saltalamacchia had made the last out of the eighth, so all the Sox had to do was hit either Napoli (if they deemed that the moment for him) or David Ross (if they didn't want to burn two players in one move), and then execute a double-switch by bringing in Koji Uehara and inserting him into the lineup in Saltalamacchia's spot. Putting him there would've delayed the pitcher coming due for another inning or two.
It was a rudimentary managerial maneuver, and one Farrell wanted to have back as soon as the game was over. Maybe that means he learned his lesson, and will be better after experiencing the World Series at that speed in Game 3 -- and Red Sox fans had better hope he did, because if the strategy isn't better in Games 4 and 5, there's a chance this team won't play under AL rules again until the spring.
2. Buchholz must give everything he has -- without trying to give more.
Whatever the right-hander's physical condition is at this point, the only thing that matters is that he gives the Red Sox everything that he has. The team is hoping for at least five, based on the fact he's been solid for that long in each of his three previous starts, but even if it's only three or four he has to find a way to gut his way through those frames and manage the situation.
On the flip side, though, they shouldn't ask Buchholz to pitch beyond himself. He's made abundantly clear over the course of dealing with his neck and shoulder injury this season that he doesn't feel he can be effective when he's less than 100 percent, so it might actually put the Sox in a worse position if he were to go out there and try to pitch outside of his comfort zone just for the sake of proving something or saving face.
That approach to a challenge might work for some people, but Buchholz hasn't said anything that suggests he has the confidence necessary for him to be one of those. If he doesn't have it, he has to be honest and realistic about his limitations, or else he might put the team in a worse position than if he didn't pitch at all.
3. Score early.
Game 3 marked the fifth time in 13 postseason games that the Red Sox were held hitless the first time through the batting order. Game 1 of this series showed how different it is to play from ahead, rather than being forced to catch up or constantly playing under the mounting pressure of a tight or tied playoff game.
Given the way Saturday night ended, and the fact they're now trailing this series, it'd especially important Sunday if the Sox were able to jump out with a crooked number early. With a couple big hits they could take some of the heat off their manager, their pitchers, and the bottom of their order. All that could be huge in tilting the series back to their favor.
4. Hit Lance Lynn's fastball.
The Cardinals' starter relies heavily on his heater, and he's generally effective in doing so, holding opponents to a .246 average this season while striking out about a batter an inning.
But the Red Sox were far and away the best fastball-hitting team in baseball this season, so the opportunity should be there for them to either capitalize or force Lynn out of his comfort zone. Also worth pointing out is that the Pirates were the fifth-most productive team in the majors when hitting fastballs -- and they ousted Lynn after tagging him with five runs in 4.1 innings during the Division Series.
This one is easy. All year long the Red Sox have professed to be resilient and relentless. Now their backs are against the wall, and they were pushed into that position in an historically frustrating fashion.
It's time to prove those characteristics are real.
It was late, and it had been a draining night of curious decisions and dicey situations, but Red Sox fans running on some combination of adrenaline and disbelief turned their televisions to NESN, or wherever, and listened as Joe Torre and three umpires sat before the microphones to explain a call that will live in World Series history forever.
Having already scurried to find baseball's rule book online, they scrutinized everything those officials had to say, as if hoping to hear evidence that the ruling was indeed as wrong as it felt to them. And based on the way Twitter exploded with each explanation, they didn't like that deciding umpire Jim Joyce initially said Will Middlebrooks' feet caused Allen Craig to trip, then contradicted himself by saying "the feet didn't play too much into that;" they didn't like hearing that there was essentially nothing Middlebrooks could've done to avoid the call after diving into the runner in his effort to catch the ball; they didn't like being told that Craig was running "literally on the chalk" when in reality the path he took to collide with Middlebrooks was actually several feet inside the foul line; and they didn't seem to like the idea that intent was irrelevant.
But when the umpires were finished, even without a completely clear explanation, the fact remained: It was the right call, based on the letter of the law.
So, Red Sox Nation, meet Raider Nation – your new brothers in rules-based outrage.
Followers of the New England sports scene need no reminder of why the Raiders feel they were wronged back in the postseason following the 2001 football season, but if you need a reminder, open up a new tab and type “Tuck Rule” into Google. Go ahead. We’ll wait.
Okay. Now that everybody’s on the same page, we can all agree that under the NFL rules at the time, referee Walt Coleman was correct in ruling the way he did upon reviewing the for-a-moment fumble Charles Woodson forced on a blitz of Tom Brady. Following the rule exactly how it was written, the result of the play was an incomplete pass.
Regardless of whether it was fair, whether the act of tucking the ball back into the body should be considered part of the throwing process, whether that’s actually what Brady was intending to do, or whether you think the rule is flat-out ridiculous, it was the rule in place when that game began. Therefore, its edicts govern the officials’ decisions during that contest.
And the same is true of what happened on Saturday night in St. Louis. It doesn’t seem fair that if Middlebrooks gets tangled with a runner when sprawling out to try and glove an errant throw he gets penalized for it if the runner then attempts to run. Essentially there was absolutely nothing he could to avoid the call once the ball got past him, and the umpires said as much afterward.
It doesn’t seem logical that the way the rule is written, if the fielder “continues to lie on the ground and delays the progress of the runner, very likely has obstructed the runner,” but the umpires said afterward that Middlebrooks could not have tried to get up.
It doesn’t seem right that Craig could embellish the collision by reaching out and pushing Middlebrooks with his hands, but players are taught to try and touch a fielder – more often in a hopeless rundown – because the rule is written to side with the runner in the case of contact. It doesn’t seem to make sense that there’s no judgment made on intent, and thus no allowance for incidental contact. It doesn’t seem just that the fielder is penalized for where his body happened to take him while trying to make a play, while the runner was allowed to run on the grass inside the baseline – and thus have no choice but to run over the third baseman – just because his body bounced in that direction after his popup slide.
But according to the way the rule is written, that’s the way it goes. Joyce made the right call. The Cardinals would’ve had a major gripe if he hadn’t. So the Red Sox lose. Fair and square.
Perhaps the rule will be revisited and rewritten, or at least clarified to answer some of the questions coming out of a high-profile, real-world example. Major League Baseball added language after a 2003 obstruction call involving Miguel Cabrera – and the NFL eventually went back and revised the Tuck Rule more than a decade after it was most famously enacted. Of course, that’s done little to calm the Raider fans for whom the incident still strikes a nerve, and who still carry a grudge – and Red Sox fans are likely to the same for a while, too.
Though let’s not lose sight of one reality while seeing red. Even after that call, the Raiders still had a chance to win the game. They still led that Divisional playoff, and they still had a chance to keep the Patriots from getting into field goal position. Then, even after Adam Vinatieri booted the greatest kick in NFL history through a driving snowstorm, Oakland had a chance to stop the Patriots from getting back into field goal range for another kick during overtime.
And the Red Sox still have an opportunity to win this World Series. That play might’ve cost them a chance to go up a game, but St. Louis’ advantage is still just 2-1. This is a team that has prided itself on its resiliency and relentlessness, and on its win-the-next-day mentality, so there’s every reason to think this will ultimately be remembered as just a wildly unexpected speed bump. Win Sunday or Monday and they will restore home-field advantage, and get a chance to go back to Fenway Park needing two victories to win a championship.
The latter of those would come on Halloween, in fact. Perfect. Their new brethren from Oakland would fit right in to the party.
With the World Series down to a best-of-five as the Red Sox and Cardinals take the festivities to Busch Stadium, here's a look at five keys for Boston in Saturday night's Game 3...
1. Get something from the bottom of the lineup.
Since Mike Napoli's three-run double in the first inning of Game 1, the Nos. 5-9 spots in the Red Sox lineup have combined to go 2-for-33 (0.61) -- and one of those hits was the Stephen Drew popup that fell between befuddled pitcher Adam Wainwright and catcher Yadier Molina early in the series opener.
Throw in a couple of walks and a sacrifice fly, and that half of the Sox lineup has reached base at a .111 clip against the Cardinals over that same span, and what's scary is the bottom of the order is about to be thinned out even further. Saturday night they'll put Jake Peavy into that portion of the lineup, while removing Napoli, because the National League doesn't allow the designated hitter. It'll stay that way through Game 5.
Obviously the Sox survived the struggles of their lower-half to win Game 1, but Game 2 showed why that might not be sustainable. Against a team with a bullpen as talented as St. Louis' is, a team can't afford to give away innings, or even at-bats. It's going to be difficult for the Sox to score late in games, so it's imperative that they keep the line moving, and turn the lineup over frequently enough that their big bats have a chance to do damage. Those batters in the 6, 7, and 8 spots don't necessarily need to drive in runs, or score themselves -- but every time they draw a walk or get a hit, the Sox get one batter closer to Dustin Pedroia and David Ortiz, both of whom are hot.
In an effort to help that, John Farrell will use Daniel Nava -- he of the eighth-best average and fifth-best OBP in the AL this season -- as his left fielder for Game 3. And while Drew might look like a lost cause at this point in what's been a dreadful postseason offensively, here's one reason to think he could come around:
Before going 3-for-4 with a double and a triple on May 26, Drew was 1 for his previous 24. Before going 4-for-5 with a homer and two doubles on June 4, he was 2 for 23. Before going 3-for-5 on June 21, he was 7 for 47. And before going 3-for-4 with two homers and five RBIs on July 27, he was 1 for 15.
The point is, Drew has shown a tendency to bust out of slumps in a big, bold way. The Sox can't expect that to happen Saturday -- but, if it does, it might be exactly what they need to win Game 3.
2. Peavy must harness his emotions, make adjustments, and battle.
One quote sums up a lot of what will factor into Peavy's performance Saturday night, when he takes the mound for the first time since the Tigers touched him for seven runs over three-plus innings in the ALCS.
"Everything is fixed, fixable," he said Friday. "It wasn't too much to read into it, really. People want to make it ‑‑ just a small, small adjustment that can make all the difference in the world. And there's absolutely no excuses tomorrow night. This is what I've lived for my whole life is to ‑‑ my whole baseball career, I should say -- to have this opportunity to go out there on the biggest stage and have a chance to help your team win a World Series game and a World Series title."
He's had 10 days to identify and make the adjustments, so now it's a matter of executing, and keeping himself under control. When he says that he's been working toward this opportunity his entire life, the hope is obviously that he'll use that focus and motivation for good.
But with a guy as intense, as self-critical, as emotional as Peavy, there's also the risk that it gets in the way of him simply making pitches. A four-pitch, bases-loaded walk to a floundering Austin Jackson was evidence that the moment maybe got to him a bit against Detroit, so he's got to find a way to rein it in a bit better at Busch Stadium. He's got to find a way to keep his team -- and himself -- in the game.
Particularly with Clay Buchholz' stamina a serious question for Sunday, the Sox simply can't afford to see their bullpen taxed on Saturday night.
3. Be careful with Matt Holliday.
The Cardinals' left fielder has a homer and a triple in this series so far, continuing a torrid stretch that's seen him hit .333 with 29 RBIs in 36 games since the start of September, and making him the biggest threat in a Cardinal lineup featuring a bruised Carlos Beltran and absent Allen Craig.
Holliday has a history of success against Peavy, too, dating back to their days as counterparts in the National League West. In 38 plate appearances, Holliday is 8-for-28, with a .286 batting average and a .474 on-base percentage -- thanks in large part to 10 walks.
That says Peavy has either preferred to pitch around Holliday, or his stuff doesn't fool the slugger into chasing -- and the reality is probably a combination of both. Regardless, not giving Holliday much to hit wouldn't be a bad strategy for the Sox in their next encounters.
4. Be patient, and put the ball in play against Joe Kelly.
After facing so many strikeout pitchers this postseason, and setting a record for whiffs in the ALCS, the right-handed Kelly presents the Sox with a difference type of challenge.
He throws hard, with a two-seamer that sits close to 95 mph, but it's not an overpowering heater, as evidenced by his rate of 5.7 strikeouts per inning this season, and there's not a lot of variety in his approach. Two of every three pitches is a fastball, which is fine if he can spot it effectively -- but, like his strikeout rate, his 3.2 walks per nine inning rate is also worse than average.
The Red Sox are a lineup built to punish a pitcher for being predictable and for not commanding, so if they can remain patient and disciplined, Kelly is a guy they could create opportunities against. He's good at getting out of trouble, which explains his 2.69 ERA despite a 1.35 WHIP, but Boston will take its chances if it's repeatedly one hit away from denting the scoreboard.
5. Use the bench.
Given the slumps plaguing the bottom of the order, given the NL rules requiring the pitcher to hit, and given the fact that, lest we forget, it was a major strength for the Sox throughout the regular season, John Farrell should consider being more aggressive with the way he uses his bench while the series is in St. Louis.
Remember, the Sox tied a team record with seven pinch-hit home runs this season, and their reserves matched the Phillies’ for the most homers off the bench in baseball. Boston's reserves were also second in slugging percentage, and fourth in on-base percentage, leading to the third-best OPS in the majors (.799) – while the Cardinals’ was the third-worst (.519).
Now Napoli joins that mix, as does Gomes, who Farrell trusted enough to start the first two games. Will Middlebrooks is another right-hander, and Mike Carp is available from the left side. There's power there, and if nothing else making a substitution here or there could force Mike Matheny to rethink the way he orchestrates things in his bullpen, if it doesn't succeed in creating a more favorable matchup.
The place looked a bit different than Williamsport, the weather was far chillier than expected for late August, and someone is going to need to check the birth certificates on those boys with the beards. There's no way they're 12 years old, and this is the Little League World Series, right? It's got to be.
Don't be fooled by the cityscape climbing beyond the stadium walls. Or the October-like crispness in the air. Or the facial hair of the players swinging wooden bats, wearing metal spikes, and chewing tobacco. Just look at the field. It says "World Series" on the grass behind home plate -- and games are being decided on plays that make we adults hear the voices of the coaches who taught us in our own fundamental-formative, pre-teen practices.
Look the ball into the glove! we heard in the first inning Wednesday, when shortstop Pete Kozma failed to catch a routine flip from second baseman Matt Carpenter as he moved toward the second base bag, taking his eyes off the ball with the runner bearing down on him as he hurried to turn a David Ortiz' grounder into two outs and ignored another basic instruction: Make sure of one!
That situation eventually cost the Cardinals three runs, and an inning later a pop-up that landed between a pitcher and catcher left exasperatedly staring at each other -- Call it! Communicate! -- opened the door for a rally that scored two more. Trailing 5-0 after two frames the Cards could never cut into that gap, and so those fundamental flubs ultimately cost them Wednesday's Game 1 by a count of 8-1.
But then Thursday the Red Sox returned the gifts. After David Ortiz crushed a two-run homer over the wall in left -- the biggest kids always seem to go deep in the Little League World Series, don't they? -- the Sox took a lead into the seventh inning, with their best relievers lined up and Koji Uehara waiting at the end to protect what was a 2-1 advantage.
Those youth coaches wouldn't keep quiet, though, and started yelling again as soon as Matt Carpenter's bases loaded fly to left landed in the glove of Jonny Gomes, and Kozma came dashing toward the plate after tagging from third.
Hit the cutoff man!
With a one-run lead, an outfielder's first instinct when he catches a medium-depth flyball with one out and a man on third is obviously to fire home in an effort to keep the run from scoring. So nobody can begrudge Gomes for coming up gunning, and trying to throw out Kozma.
Except that here's how Gomes described the challenge he faced on that particular play: "Had to swing my body all the way around, had a strong throw, and it skipped away from Salty. That would've been a tough, tough, tough play to get him out at home."
On such a tough -- tough, tough -- play, then, the left fielder has to account for more than just the guy tagging at third. There were two other baserunners active on the play, when the play began the Red Sox were leading, and it was only the seventh inning. In the best-case scenario he throws the runner out, of course, but in attempting to do so he needs to also do whatever he can to make sure that the worst-case scenario is a tie game, with two outs and men on first and second.
The way to do that is hitting the cutoff man, letting Jarrod Saltalamacchia judge the runner's progress before telling Xander Bogaerts whether to cut the ball or let it go through, and manage the risk. Especially when the best-case scenario play was of such a high degree of difficulty, that's the proper execution. Instead, he aired it out. And the throw went a bit up the first base line.
Come off the base to catch the ball!
Part of managing risk is up to Saltalamacchia there, too. Once Gomes sails the cutoff man, his primary responsibility is to catch the ball. Not to block the plate, not to make a tag. His job is to catch the ball. And he didn't do it.
Instead of leaving the plate to catch the ball, or at least keep it in front of him, he tried to hold his ground and reach for the throw. When he extended, it made for a difficult catch, and he didn't make it. The ball clanged off his glove. It rolled behind him, where pitcher Craig Breslow picked it up, and saw Jon Jay breaking for third.
Don't throw the ball around!
Jay didn't do a good job reading the ball off the bat, so as Gomes was uncorking toward the plate, Jay was diving back into second base. He sprung up quickly when he saw where the ball was headed, crept a little farther when he noticed the cutoff man wasn't going to be in play, and broke into a full-out sprint when the ball got past Saltalamacchia.
If Breslow couldn't scooped and thrown quickly, he might've had a shot to get Jay heading for third. But he couldn't. Rather, the reliever retrieved the ball and had to take a sideways crow hop to clear the catcher from his throwing lane. Once he did this he had no shot at nabbing Jay, even with a perfect throw.
He should've put it in his back pocket and focused on what to do with Carlos Beltran. Instead he fired over the head of Stephen Drew, and into the seats on a bounce. Suddenly the Sox were down 3-2 with a runner at third, then Beltran needed only flair a single into right to give the Red Birds an insurance score.
That's where the game ended, 4-2, tying the series at a game apiece, and turning the United States' championship into a best-of-five.
No word yet on who will emerge from the international bracket.
Looking at five facets that could factor prominently into the Red Sox' quest to go up 2-0 in the World Series, fairly confident that none involve ill-advised 3-pointers followed, or a little shimmy. "Wacha" and "Walker" aren't actually the same, despite our regional pronunciations...
1. Make Wacha wiggle a little bit.
Michael Wacha's meteoric rise is one of baseball's more remarkable stories in recent memory, as just 16 months after being drafted with the No. 19 overall pick he dominated the National League portion of the postseason, and will make his first start since winning NLCS honors when his Cardinals look to rebound against the Red Sox in Thursday's Game 2 of the World Series.
Wacha's numbers are ridiculous. In 21 innings he's allowed eight hits and one run, that coming on a solo homer that busted up a no-hitter in the eighth inning of a game in which Pittsburgh had a chance to eliminate St. Louis. He also came up one out shy of pitching a no-no in his final start of the regular season, losing it when Washington's Ryan Zimmerman beat out a grounder to short.
At 22 years old, he's made it look absurdly easy. But what we don't know for sure is how he'll respond in a playoff game when things gets difficult.
Through his first three starts, there's only been two innings in which he's allowed more than one baserunner. Of the 19 innings he's finished, he's retired the side in order 14 times. Only once has he faced more than four batters before getting back to the dugout.
So, yes, he won a 2-1 game when the Cardinals had their backs pressed up against the wall by the Pirates. Yes, he won a 1-0 decision in his first start of the NLCS. And, yes, he pitched a shutout during the pennant clincher in which he was opposed by Cy Young favorite Clayton Kershaw.
But Wacha hasn't yet been forced to really make pitches to stunt a rally or stem momentum or minimize damage. Only once -- when he faced six batters and loaded the bases with an intentional walk -- has he had to pitch his way out of a jam. He hasn't had to work around defensive letdowns or stay effective while laboring. Obviously the primary reason for that is because it's been extremely difficult for offenses to gain those advantages against him -- but the Red Sox have a way of making pitchers uncomfortable. Especially at Fenway Park, they have a way of grinding down the best of the best.
And, if they're able to do make him squirm a bit in Game 2, Wacha's response will say a lot about whether he truly belongs in that class.
2. Lackey needs to mix and locate.
As John Lackey returns to the mound for the first time since outdueling Justin Verlander in Detroit, he looks to duplicate that dazzling performance. Not just in terms of results, but in terms of recipe, too.
What stood out most from Lackey's 6.2 shutout innings against the Tigers was his ability to throw strikes without leaving the ball over the middle of the plate -- look at this -- and his ability to keep hitters off balance by varying his pitch selection. He used his secondary pitches rather than rely to heavily on his fastball.
In featuring 38 cutters and 15 curveballs, according to BrooksBaseball.net, Jon Lester's performance in Wednesday's Game 1 was similarly effective in that regard. And the data suggests that will be the way to attack the Cardinals all series. They're among baseball's 10 best offenses when hitting the fastball, but the more offspeed the pitch, the more average (or even below-average) they become.
Lackey doesn't have the velocity he had back in April, in his first few starts after returning from Tommy John Surgery. He's not going to blow away these St. Louis hitters. But if he mixes and locates, he won't have to.
3. Get on ahead of Napoli.
John Farrell makes no secret what Sox fans have known since April: With Mike Napoli, you're going to have to put up with the peaks and valleys that come with such a streaky hitter.
But Sox fans should also know by now that Napoli craves the big moment. He said as much on Wednesday, when asked about his career 1.104 OPS in the World Series -- "I love this stage. It's in the spotlight. I really enjoy this time of year" -- and it was on full display during the regular season when he came to bat with the bases loaded, batting .458 with three grand slams, 31 RBIs, and a 1.480 OPS in 25 such opportunities.
He affirmed that production once more with a three-run double in the first inning Wednesday, so if the top of the Red Sox lineup can continue to set him up with these chances to get a big hit in a big spot in a big game, his track record suggests both he and the club should feel good about having the bat in his hands at that moment.
And there were indications in Game 1 that the guys hitting ahead of him might just give him those chances. Both Dustin Pedroia and David Ortiz had two hits, while Jacoby Ellsbury has been good throughout the postseason and Shane Victorino looked better (despite going 0-for-4) than he did in the Detroit series.
4. Trust the scouts.
Will Middlebrooks played Legion ball with Wacha, but none of the Sox have faced the Cardinals pitcher, obviously. And, conversely, none of the Cardinals have ever got a hit off of Lackey. (Matt Holliday is 0-for-7 lifetime, while Carlos Beltran is 0-for-9.)
So there'll be a lot of first encounters playing out in Game 2, which should put a heavy emphasis on the information provided by the teams' scouts and disseminated by the leaders of those staffs, as well as the coaches. They are the folks who have seen the Cardinals in person and have the best idea about where St. Louis may be prone to attack -- and in the case of a guy like Wacha, who has only recently burst on the scene, they may need to make those assessments with limited info.
The Red Sox organization honored their collection of scouts and minor-league coaches Wednesday night by giving them and their wives tickets to sit in the center field bleachers, and by asking the Fenway sellout to give them all a round of applause during one of the between-innings breaks. But back behind the scenes, that group may give those fans even more of a reason to cheer in Game 2.
5. Be ready for a better effort from the Cardinals.
To a man, the Red Sox insisted in the clubhouse after Game 1 that the Cardinals are a much better team than they showed Wednesday. St. Louis Manager Mike Matheny went so far as to say his players were "embarrassed."
So Boston should be prepared for a sharper, more focused, more urgent performance from the Cardinals on Thursday, particularly at the start of the game when they'll be trying to change the tenor of the series and swing some of its momentum in their favor.
At the very least, it's unlikely the Sox will be able to count on the Cards making three more errors and a couple other costly misplays -- and when Game 1 is reconsidered with those factors removed from the equation, there probably wasn't as much difference between the two teams as an 8-1 score would usually indicate. Boston had eight hits, St. Louis had seven. Boston had three extra-base hits, St. Louis had two. Both teams drew one walk.
This was always expected to be a tight series, between baseball's two best teams, and Thursday night's game is likely to be more reflective of that than Wednesday was. The Red Sox have to be ready for that. And seven months of evidence suggests that they will.
|Jacoby Ellsbury, CF||0-for-3, R, BB, K: By working Adam Wainwright for a leadoff walk, Ellsbury not only set the table for the Sox’ three-run first, he also reached base for the 12th time in his last 13 playoff games. In only three of those contests has he gone without scoring a run. That’s a tablesetter.|
|Shane Victorino,RF||0-for-4: The results weren’t exactly there, but Victorino looked a heck of a lot better at the plate Wednesday thana he did in the ALCS. In his first at-bat he stung a hard liner that Matt Holliday came charging in to catch in left, then in the seventh he had a hit taken away when first baseman Matt Adams got to a softer line drive in the hole. It was an encouraging 0-for-4 for Victorino. And suffice it to say, you may have seen him duplicate his post-grand slam histrionics had the bang-bang call gone his way and he’d thrown out David Freese from right field on Freese’s ninth-inning single.|
|Dustin Pedroia, 2B||2-for-4, 2 R, RBI: He started coming around toward the end of the ALCS, collecting four hits over the final three games, and it appeared to carry over. Pedroia singled in each of his first two at-bats, the latter making becoming the first Wainwright allowed this season after falling behind 3-0 in the count, and plating a run.|
|David Ortiz, DH||2-for-3, 2 R, 3 RBI, HR, SF : Talk about a good sign for the Red Sox offense. After struggling mightily in the Tigers’ series, Ortiz hit one ball that would’ve been out had Carlos Beltran not robbed him of a grand slam, then left nothing to chance by belting one over the bullpen. If the Cardinals’ plan was to use lefty reliever Kevin Siegrist to match up with Ortiz in this series, that bomb has to now have them doubting that idea at least a little bit. And don’t sleep on the hard single Ortiz slapped to left-center, either; that’s often an indication that he’s staying on the ball and locked in.|
|Mike Napoli, 1B||1-for-4, 3 RBI, 2B: Then with the Rangers, Napoli was a beast in the 2011 series against St. Louis -- as he reminded Cardinals fans with the frozen rope he sent to left-center in the first inning, which scooted to teh wall for a three-run double. It was his only hit of the night, but he did sting another shot to center in the seventh.|
|Jonny Gomes, LF||0-for-3: Lester made it a pretty stress-free night for the Red Sox outfield, but Gomes still managed to made everybody notice him. Completely leaving his feet, he made a diving catch to take a hit away from Matt Adams in the fifth. He then made everyone notice him again, when he fumbled the ball while retrieving a Matt Carpenter single -- but as is usually the case with Gomes, he didn’t hurt the team. As also usually seems to be the case, Daniel Nava got a hit when he got his turn, that coming when he pinch-hit for Gomes in the eighth.|
|Xander Bogaerts, 3B||0-for-3, RBI, SF, 2 K: He is human, after all. Bogaerts struck out twice and lined to short in his first three trips, but just when it looked like he might fail to make an impact on the game for the first time when given an opportunity this postseason, he crushed a liner to left that went as a sacrifice fly in the eighth.|
|Stephen Drew, SS||1-for-4, R, 2 K: Here’s what it said in the official game notes: “Stephen Drew singled in the second inning to snap a string of 11 consecutive at-bats without a hit. Dating back to Game 3 of the ALDS, Drew has gone 2-for-29.” The details of that single were conveniently omitted -- but when it’s going the way it’s been going for Drew, you take whatever you can get.|
|David Ross, C||1-for-4, R, 2 K: He had a hit, but that’s a bonus. Ross is in there for his ability to call a game and receive pitches -- both of which are why the Sox are 4-1 when he starts in these playoffs, and have yielded an average of just two runs per game in those five contests.|
|Jon Lester, SP||7.2 IP, 0 ER, 5 H, BB, 8 K: The lefty allowed less than four runs for the ninth time in 10 career postseason starts, and has now logged 13.1 World Series innings without yielding any runs. Thanks in no small part to a comebacker he induced from David Freese with one out and the bases loaded in the fourth, then turned into a 1-2-3 double play, his ERA in these playoffs is 1.67. And for his postseason career it’s now 2.22. By comparison, Curt Schilling’s was 2.23.|
|Junichi Tazawa, RP||0.1 IP, K: After Lester got the first two batters of the eighth, and pushed his pitch count to 112, Farrell summoned Tazawa to finish the inning. He did that quickly, striking out the only man he faced.|
|Ryan Dempster, RP||IP, ER, 2 H, K, HR: It was a mop-up inning of little consequence to the outcome -- but, according to Gomes, it was hardly inconsequential for Dempster: “One of the really big things that happened tonight, you talk about a 15-year vet who’s wanted to play baseball since he was 4 years old. He gave up that homer (to Matt Holliday), gave up a hit after, but I don’t think anyone in here had the emotions and the grit and grind that he had. That was a pretty emotional moment when he was on that moment, and one of the coolest things I’ve seen in a long time.”|
When Adam Wainwright settled in, and plowed through the entire Boston lineup with but one exception, the importance of what the Red Sox had done prior to that point became unmistakably clear.
When Wainwright surrendered just one hit over the third, fourth, and fifth innings, when he retired 10 of 11 over that span, and when he finally started to look like a perennial Cy Young candidate with an impressive postseason pedigree, it emphasized how critical it was in setting the tone and tenor of this World Series that the Sox capitalized on the opportunities they had to bury the Cardinals and their ace early on in a Game 1 they'd eventually win 8-1.
Those opportunities were afforded in part by some shoddy St. Louis defense, shortstop Pete Kozma completely missing a flip from second baseman Matt Carpenter to give away one out -- and maybe two -- then Kozma booting a bouncer in the hole, and Wainwright not exactly helping himself by miscommunicating with his catcher on a popup they let land safely between the plate and the mound.
It was uncharacteristic of a team that won 97 games during the regular season. And it couldn't come at a worse time in the game, according to the way Wainwright's starts tend to go.
His earned run average ranks third among all active pitchers, and he led the National League with 19 wins this season, so there's really not a good time to face him. But if there is a particular point in the game when the big right-hander is vulnerable, the numbers say it's early.
During the regular season, Wainwright's ERA in the first inning was 6.09, and opponents batted .326 against him with an .876 on-base plus slugging. No other frame was close, and after that opening inning his numbers fall to a 2.43 ERA, a .233 average, and a .591 OPS. So, basically, Wainwright is below average in the fourth -- but then he suddenly becomes one of baseball's best.
Opponents better get to him early, then, and that's exactly what the Red Sox did. Jacoby Ellsbury laid off a couple of two-strike curveballs to draw the second leadoff walk Wainwright has issued this season, then Dustin Pedroia followed a loud out from Shane Victorino with a single to center.
The Sox nearly blew their chance at that point, when David Ortiz bounced into what might've been a double play, but Kozma mishandled the throw and that brought Mike Napoli to bat with the bases loaded, and with a chance to make sure the Sox didn't let Wainwright off the hook. He did exactly that by lacing a double that rolled up against the base of the wall in left-center, and with that the Sox had a 3-0 lead.
"You've got to take advantage of those opportunities you get in a game," said Boston's first baseman. "We've been able to do that all playoffs. And that's what it's about. A lot of things went right for us, but we've got to take advantage of those opportunities and we did."
Napoli's three-run knock came on the 23rd pitch of the game -- and with Wainwright more hittable from pitch 1-25 than he is during any other 25-pitch increment throughout a start, their 3-0 lead stood as proof that the Sox had taken advantage of the opportunities they needed to take advantage of. Kozma's second error and the Cardinal battery's gift to the curators of the baseball bloopers reel opened the door to two more Red Sox runs in the second, but from there Wainwright figured things out, like he usually does. After Ortiz's grand slam was turned into a sacrifice fly on a terrific catch by Carlos Beltran, Wainwright allowed just one more baserunner over his final three innings of work.
But by then, by not having let that first inning go to waste, the Sox were already in control of the game. And -- for the moment, at least -- the series.
"You've got to do those things to win 97 games in the regular season, and definitely to win in the postseason," said Sox outfielder Jonny Gomes. "To sum it up, we do a really good job of that, but on the flip side we do a really good job of picking each other up and hiding our mistakes, too."
Nine years to the day since Woody Williams opposed Tim Wakefield, Manny Ramirez went sliding into a sprinkler head, the teams were tied at 9 entering the bottom of the eighth -- and the Red Sox opened a four-game World Series sweep of the Cardinals, the same two teams return to Fenway Park for a rematch featuring baseball's two best teams.
Here's a look at five keys for the Red Sox going into Game 1, with no expectation that the final score will wind up anywhere near 11-9...
1. Don't expand the strike zone for Adam Wainwright.
The Cardinals' ace is one of the best pitchers in all of baseball, regardless of whether you put that list together with thinking from the old school (he led the NL with 19 wins) or the new (his xFIP of 2.80 was fourth in the big leagues). His career earned run average of 3.11 is the third best among active pitchers who've thrown at least 1,000 innings, and once Mariano Rivera's exit becomes official he'll slide up to second.
He presents a heck of a challenge for the Red Sox in Game 1, especially considering he can -- and will -- throw three plus pitches at any time. That unpredictability gives him an advantage in every encounter, right or left, scrub or star, and with that upperhand Wainwright does a terrific job of getting hitters to chase. In fact, according to Fangraphs, opposing batters swung at 36.2 percent of the pitches the right-hander threw outside of the strike zone during the regular season, which was third highest in the majors.
So it'll be important Wednesday night that the Sox don't play into Wainwright's strength by straying off the plate and expanding the strike zone. That'll be easier said than done, of course, considering the statistics suggest he has the second-best cutter and second-best curveball in all of baseball -- and with those come a lot of ugly swings. But Boston's best chance against Wainwright is to be disciplined, and try to get themselves in positions to capitalize on his comparatively average fastball when he's forced to throw it over the plate.
"The key for us is if we get pitches on the plate, in the middle of the plate somewhere, " Sox Manager John Farrell said, "is not to miss them."
They'd also be well served not to miss any early chances that present themselves. Wainwright's first-inning ERA this season was 6.09, and he's most hittable in his first 25 pitches; conversely, opponents hit .216 with a .544 OPS after pitch No. 100, better than any segment before that.
2. Jon Lester needs to capitalize on Cards' vulnerability to lefties.
The Cardinals clinched their trip to Boston by beating up on sensational southpaw Clayton Kershaw in Game 6 of the NLCS -- but that appears to be the aberration. Against left-handed pitching the Cardinals batted just .238 during the regular season, ranking 27th of baseball's 30 teams. Their .672 OPS was fifth-worst, and neither of those numbers changes much whether matched with a starter or a reliever.
Lester personally held lefties to a .237 average and a .670 OPS this season, so he has an arsenal that should play well against those deficiencies of a St. Louis lineup in which leadoff man Matt Carpenter (.294) is the only left-handed swinger who bats better than .231 against pitchers throwing from the same side. The righties aren't great, either, with Matt Holiday hitting only one homer against a lefty this season, Allen Craig posting an OBP of .311, and switch-hitter Carlos Beltran batting just .252 against southpaws.
Lester's biggest obstacle could be Yadier Molina, the catcher with an .883 OPS against lefties in 2013.
3. Keep Carpenter off the bases.
The Cards' second baseman scored 126 runs during the regular season, which was 17 more than any other player. For perspective on how important that was for St. Louis, consider that they went 32-41 when he didn't score a run -- compared to 65-24 when he did cross the plate.
He gave himself so many chances to score by accumulating a .392 OBP in the regular season, though in the NL Division Series the Pirates did a good job keeping him off the bases, and Carpenter scored only once. As a result, the Cardinals fell behind in that series and twice had to fend off elimination.
If Boston can duplicate what Pittsburgh did, it'll go a long way toward negating some of the boost St. Louis will get from the return of Allen Craig.
4. Put pressure on the defense.
If they didn't do it against a hobbling Miguel Cabrera, it's hard to envision the Red Sox often trying to bunt for hits in this series, or any other. And against baseball's active leader in caught stealing percentage for a catcher, Molina at 44.5 percent, it's hard to envision the Red Sox trying to swipe many bags.
But Boston can help itself by finding a way to keep pressure on the Cardinal defense. Baseball Info Solutions rated them as the second-worst defense in the National League according to its defensive runs saved metric, with particular weaknesses at third base and across the outfield, with David Freese, Matt Holliday, Carlos Beltran and Jon Jay all well below average.
St. Louis doesn't make a lot of errors, typically. If the Sox hit it at the Cardinals, generally the Cards will make the play. And they turned more double plays this season than all but one team. Yet if Boston can get them moving, and keep them challenged, it could create some additional opportunities for itself.
5. Keep doing what they've done to get here.
The Red Sox didn't hit much against Detroit -- but they came through when it counted, seized opportunities, pitched pretty well, and played good defense. That multidimensional ability is a big reason they won 97 games during the regular season, and if the players just continue to focus on doing their jobs and playing solid baseball for just one more round, Boston should like its chances.
"A lot of things that work in the regular season still work in the postseason," General Manager Ben Cherington said after his team won the ALCS. "The numbers may not look the same, but if you can have a quality at-bat in a tough situation, then you can have a quality at-bat in a tough situation. If you can make a defensive play when you need it, you can make a defensive play when you need it. If you can execute a pitch, you can execute a pitch.
"We've seen a lot of that in (the ALCS) in different spots. Even though some guys' numbers in the series were better than others, we've had contributions from just about everyone. We won games in different ways."
To encapsulate the degree to which the Red Sox offense was limited by the Tigers' terrific pitching, consider that Boston's on-base percentage in the American League Championship Series was the same as its batting average during the regular season. Both were .277.
Likewise, the Sox scored two fewer runs per game in the ALCS than they did throughout the course of the year -- yet here they are, headed to the World Series for the third time in 10 seasons, and with a chance to become baseball's first three-time champion of this century. And to hear their general manager explain it, just because the numbers don't reflect it doesn't mean the recipe necessarily changed in the playoffs.
"A lot of things that work in the regular season still work in the postseason," Ben Cherington said. "The numbers may not look the same, but if you can have a quality at-bat in a tough situation, then you can have a quality at-bat in a tough situation. If you can make a defensive play when you need it, you can make a defensive play when you need it. If you can execute a pitch, you can execute a pitch.
"We've seen a lot of that in this series in different spots, even though some guys' numbers in the series were better than others, we've had contributions from just about everyone. We won games in different ways."
They won games with starting pitching, with timely hitting, with good work out of the bullpen, and with generally excellent defense. They did a little bit of a lot of things that help a team win when one area of strength may not be working -- and that bodes well moving forward against a Cardinal team that matched them for the most wins in the majors this season.
"The staff and the players have made sure we're balanced. They've made sure that we're good in the areas that are controllable," Cherington said. "You can control how good you are on the bases, and we've done that. To some extent, you can control how good you are defensively, and we've done that. There are some elements that are out of our control, but we've done a very good job of controlling the things we can control."
Let's look at where those contributions came from:
|Jacoby Ellsbury, CF||7-for-22 (.318), .878 OPS, 3 R, 3 RBI, 2B, 3B, 4 BB, 6 K, 2 SB: Nobody will ever know how history might’ve been different had Jose Iglesias started a difficult -- though hardly impossible -- double play on the ground ball Ellsbury hit up the middle immediately before Victorino launched his game-winning grand slam. But that’s irrelevant now. What matters is that this was another good series for the center fielder, highlighted by a four hits in Game 4, a .423 OBP, and a go-ahead single early in Game 6. He’s now a .312 hitter in 122 career postseason plate appearances.|
|Shane Victorino,RF||3-for-24 (.125), .484 OPS, 2 R, 5 RBI, 2B, HR, 9 K, SB: Victorino has yet to draw a walk in the postseason, though he was hit by two more pitches in this series. Those now account for six of the 15 times he’s reached base in 45 plate appearances. But like J.D. Drew before him, all anyone will remember about the Red Sox right fielder’s ALCS run is one mighty swing in Game 6.|
|Dustin Pedroia, 2B||6-for-22 (.273), .703 OPS, R, RBI, 2B, 4 BB, 6 K, SB: His glove uncharacteristically let the Sox down in Game 4, when his failure to start a twin killing breathed life into a Tiger rally that became a big inning, and the Sox never recovered. However, as far as offense goes, the series ended encouragingly for Pedroia, who reached base twice in each of its final three games and had a hit in each.|
|David Ortiz, DH||2-for-22 (.091), .427 OPS, R, 4 RBI, HR, 3 BB, 4 K : If Jhonny Peralta was a capable left fielder, and took away Ortiz’s bloop hit in Detroit, the epic Game 2 grand slam would’ve been his only hit of the series. As it is, it led to his only run, only RBIs, only real contribution in a performance that signified the fourth time in his last five series that the “Greatest Clutch Hitter” in Red Sox history has batted .235 or worse, and failed to crack .700 with his OPS.|
|Mike Napoli, 1B||6-for-20 (.300), 1.033 OPS, 4 R, 2 RBI, 2 2B, 2 HR, BB, 11 K: If Uehara had stumbled at any point, Napoli probably would’ve been the ALCS MVP. Take away the bookends -- where he was 0-for-7 with six strikeouts -- and he had six hits in 13 trips, and four of them went for extra bases. As usual, it wasn’t the most consistent performance for the first baseman, though in the end the productivity was there.|
|Daniel Nava, LF||2-for-65 (.333), .762 OPS, BB, 3 K: By the end of the series Nava had lost the starting left fielder’s role to Jonny Gomes, with Farrell citing Gomes’s intangible contributions as a primary factor. But we wonder if the way Detroit pitched Nava in Game 4 had something to do with it. Nava’s greatest strength as a hitter is his ability to be patient, drive up a pitch count, and grind out at-bats. But after using 22 pitches to get through him in his first start, the Tigers threw him only strikes in his second appearance. They attacked him, and forced Nava to swing the bat. He’s capable in that spot, having posted the AL’s eighth-best average this season, but Gomes has a better chance of changing the game with one swing.|
|Jonny Gomes, LF||3-for-16 (.188), .438 OPS, 3 R, 2B, 7 K: His bigger contributions actually came defensively, as he made two nice catches and gunned down Miguel Cabrera at home plate early in Game 5, but he sure made his three hits count. The first was an infield safety that preceded him scoring the walkoff winner in Game 2, then he came within a couple inches of tying Game 6 himself in the seventh inning. Instead his shot to left hit just below the lip of the left-field wall, and he came in to score on Victorino’s salami. If nothing else, his flair for the spotlight should play well on baseball’s biggest stage.|
|Jarrod Saltalamacchia, C||3-for-16 (.188), .375 OPS, 2 RBI, 8 K: It has not been a good postseason for him offensively, as he’s now struck out in 15 of 27 plate appearances, and doesn’t have an extra-base hit since the opener against Tampa Bay. However, like the Tigers, the Cardinals have an all-righty starting rotation in the next round -- so it would be a huge boost for Boston if Saltalamacchia is a presence on the left side. Otherwise, David Ross might see an increased workload.|
|Stephen Drew, SS||1-for-20 (.050), .145 OPS, BB, 10 K: He looks completely ineffective at the plate, swinging right through hittable pitches -- but his contributions can’t be understated on the defensive side. The double play was a huge weapon for Sox pitchers in this series, and Drew is important there, and, frankly, he outplayed the wizard-like Iglesias defensively in this series. That was never more apparent than in the seventh inning of Game 6, when Drew ended the top half with a rangy diving play to prevent a run, then Iglesias booted the fairly routine Ellsbury chance that prolonged a decisive rally.|
|Will Middlebrooks, 3B||1-for-10 (.100), .300 OPS, R, 2B, 5 K: Just as he did during the regular season, he fell into a funk and it cost him his starting role. Xander Bogaerts had a lot to do with that, obviously, but Middlebrooks didn’t make much of a case for himself by being one of five Sox who struck out in at least half of their at-bats in the series. Keep an eye on him in the World Series, though: Particularly under National League rules, he may get chances to hit. And he has a knack for turning a perceived slight into power. The prediction here is that he homers against the Cardinals.|
|Xander Bogaerts, SS/3B||3-for-6 (.500), 1.667 OPS, 4 R, 3 2B, 3 BB, K: In 11 plate appearances this postseason, the 21-year-old rookie now has three doubles, five walks, and has scored seven runs. Not a bad way to splash onto the scene. And when you look at the strike zone plots of the two free passes he drew from Scherzer in Game 6, you’ll see that in both battles he took a pitch that was in the strike zone but called a ball -- including the 3-2 offering in the seventh. But looking at the whole game, you’ll also see that the home plate umpire was inconsistent in that down-and-away corner all night, and generally narrow. That could either be a sign that Bogaerts was aware of that night’s zone, or it’s a sign that the kid has already earned enough respect that even up against the presumptive Cy Young winner he already gets the benefit of the doubt. Either way, it’s darn impressive.|
|David Ross, C||2-for-4 (.500), .600 OPS, 2B, RBI, BB, K: Through three starts and four games, Ross is hitting .333 with a couple of doubles and a .956 OPS in 11 plate appearances. That’s good enough to merit his place in the lineup if Saltalamacchia continues to struggle at the plate and the Sox prefer to err on the side of defense behind it. Controlling the running game is more important against St. Louis than it was against Detroit, so the better thrower might be a better option, especially late in games.|
|Mike Carp, 1B/PH||0-for-5 (.000), 2 K: He got the start at first base in Game 2, but did nothing of substance with that opportunity. With Ortiz joining the mix at that position when the Sox play under NL rules, Carp isn’t likely to start again, but he could make a difference as a pinch-hitter.|
|Quintin Berry, PR||0-for-0, SB: The resident runner did his job -- again -- appearing in one game, and stealing a base. He’s 2-for-2 in that category this postseason, and 4-for-4 in his playoff career.|
|Jon Lester, SP||11.2 IP, 13 H, 3 ER, 4 BB, 7 K: Lester made it eight times in nine career playoff starts that he’s yielded fewer than four earned runs, though the Tigers tested him. He averaged 1.46 walks and hits per inning, but pitched out of trouble well enough to keep the Sox in Game 1, and to win Game 5. Farrell would love to get more length out of Lester in the World Series, though he’d take a replication of these results, too.|
|Clay Buchholz, SP||10.2 IP, 12 H, 7 ER, 2 BB, 10 K: His 5.91 ERA was more than three times what his ERA was during the regular season -- though it appears to mostly be a fatigue issue. Only one of the runs Buchholz allowed in the series came during the first five frames, but in the sixth he faced a total of nine batters over two appearances, allowing six hits, a walk, and six runs. Farrell should have the hook in hand by that point in his next outing.|
|John Lackey, SP||6.2 IP, 4 H, 8 K: Going up against Justin Verlander with the series tied at a game apiece, he delivered his signature moment as a Red Sox. It’s as simple as that.|
|Jake Peavy, SP||3 IP, 5 H, 7 ER, 3 BB, K: It might’ve been different had Pedroia started the aforementioned double play in the second inning. But a veteran like Peavy has to find a way to pitch around predicaments like that, so he’s hardly absolved from blame. He did little to limit the damage, and Detroit made him pay for it.|
|Ryan Dempster, SP||IP, H: He worked a scoreless inning in Game 4, and he’s now thrown just 18 pitches since the end of the regular season. That considered, if he was asked to come in for long relieve, you wonder how long he’d be able to go.|
|Brandon Workman, RP||4.2 IP, 3 H, 2 BB, 3 K: The righty was good in the series, making three appearances: he held the deficit in check during a scoreless inning in Game 2; he threw two innings after Peavy bombed in Game 4; then he got five outs, starting by stranding two inherited runners, in Game 6. Each time he was in by the sixth, so the Sox may not trust him later, but in big spots in the earlier middle innings, he is likely to be called upon.|
|Craig Breslow, RP||3.1 IP, H, 4 BB, 2 K: He allowed only one hit over four appearances, but his four free passes are a little bit concerning. He also walked five over 12 innings in September, and with Morales and Doubront the other options the Sox could really use at least one of their lefties to be reliable as a strikethrower.|
|Junichi Tazawa, RP||2.2 IP, ER, 4 H, K: The impression of Tazawa in the series is more positive than his numbers -- including a 1.5 WHIP -- because of the work he did in helping to handle Miguel Cabrera. The Sox felt they needed a power righty who can locate to handle the triple crown winner, and Tazawa was exactly that.|
|Franklin Morales, RP||1 IP, 2 H, BB: Get this: Morales’s ERA for the series was 0.00. That’s right. He may have walked Prince Fielder on four pitches after replacing Buchholz in Game 6, then surrendered a missile of a single to Victor Martinez before getting yanked, but Workman cleaned up the mess (thanks to some bad Tiger baserunning) and so Morales’ shutout inning in Game 4 is the only thing that really shows up on his personal stat line.|
|Koji Uehara, RP||6 IP, 4 H, 9 K: Winning one game and saving three others, Koji was just as expected. That a 0.00 ERA, a 0.67 WHIP, a 14.5 rate of strikeouts per nine innings, and an infinite strikeout-to-walk ratio has become the expectation tells you how good he has been this year. And why he was the ALCS MVP.|
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.
There's a fine line between allegiance and alarm when it comes to assembling a lineup. A manager must be careful not to overreact amid the ebbs and flows inherent to baseball's natural rhythm, but he can't be so blindly loyal that he's stubborn, either. It's a tricky balance.
Of course, there's an even finer line between winning and losing when it comes to the playoffs -- which is part of the reason why Jim Leyland decided he couldn't wait another day before tweaking his batting order. Austin Jackson was the Tigers' leadoff hitter in 102 of the team's previous 106 games, but he batted eighth in Game 4 of the American League Championship Series. Torii Hunter moved to the top of the lineup for the first time since 1999. And Miguel Cabrera moved up the No. 2 slot for the first time in nine years, after exclusively batting third since 2011.
The decisions paid off for Detroit, as those three players combined to drive in six of the seven runs that accounted for a 7-3 win.
And with the ALCS now knotted at two games apiece, it appears time for the Red Sox to respond.
Boston doubled its hit total for the series on Wednesday (going from 12 to 24), but the 10 men stranded on base were left behind as signals that there are still too many holes in the order, too many players scuffling -- and so before it's too late, John Farrell needs to consider making some changes. Then he needs to make them.
Whether or not he'll act remains to be seen. "One thing that we've maintained is a constant approach with the lineup and not creating further uncertainty, and I think our guys have responded well to that," he said after Wednesday's loss, which he left lamenting the lack of two-out knocks and timely extra-base hits, but largely satisfied with his team's offensive approach.
But at this juncture there's no time to wait for guys to bust out of their funk, or to hope things starts coming together the way they did during the regular season, when the Sox had the most productive bats in baseball. Boston's season is down to a best-of-three for the American League pennant. They're not desperate yet, but there is undeniable urgency ingrained in every decision at this point.
And the Sox' Game 5 lineup should reflect that. It should be bold. It should be designed with only Thursday in mind. It should look something like this:
1. Jacoby Ellsbury, CF
After a 4-for-5 night in Game 4, his average in this series is up to .333, with a .412 on-base percentage, and so there's no question he should remain in the leadoff spot. He's been the Sox' best offensive player in the postseason -- at .424 overall -- and if Wednesday is a precursor of a hot streak, he could be the catalyst that gets the offensive engine firing again.
2. Daniel Nava, LF
He has a hit in each of his starts in this series, reaching base in three of seven plate appearances. In Game 1 he coaxed 22 pitches out of his four trips, so in Game 4 the Tigers attacked him with strikes -- they were seven for seven -- and forced him to swing the bat, though Nava still managed to register a single in one at-bat, and get a runner to third base with a grounder to the right side in another. He's one of the few Sox that seems to be executing his plan at this point, and he can handle whatever the situation requires out of the No. 2 hitter. Plus, if the Tigers go to a lefty in order to turn around the switch hitter, the Sox can easily sub in Jonny Gomes.
3. David Ortiz, DH
His lone hit in the series was the game-tying grand slam in Game 2 -- and even then he admitted he felt funny at the plate that night. But he's 3-for-6 against Detroit starter Anibal Sanchez in his career, with a double and two homers. Even when he's struggling, the Sox want him at the plate as often as possible.
4. Dustin Pedroia, 2B
The second baseman has more strikeouts (eight) than hits (seven) this postseason, and his average is down to .214 in this series against the Tigers. Other than the latter half of Game 2, he's looked uncomfortable at the plate, swinging at a lot of bad balls and hitting a lot of harmless ground balls. Maybe moving him down a spot allows him to relax a bit, and hitting in front of a heating Napoli might also give him some better pitches to hit.
5. Mike Napoli, 1B
He followed up his game-winning homer by going 2-for-4 with a double. He went 0-for-2 with a walk against Sanchez in the series opener, though all three plate appearances were of good quality. When he was going well he carried the Sox at times this season, and he did the same thing with the Rangers a couple of postseasons ago, when Rays' manager Joe Maddon declared it the "Year of Napoli." He fits in the middle of the order, and the case could even be made he deserves to be in the cleanup spot of this order.
6. Jarrod Saltalamacchia, C
It's tempting to go with David Ross behind the plate after he and Jon Lester worked so well together against Tampa, but there are several reasons why Saltalamacchia is the better option: he was 2-for-4 in Game 3, and offense is at a premium right now; Ross is 2-for-12 against Sanchez lifetime; if Ross plays, the Sox will have five righties in the lineup against Sanchez (who held righties to a .207 average this season), possibly six if Farrell goes with Gomes over Nava, and possibly seven if he also goes with Bogaerts/Middlebrooks over Stephen Drew; Saltalamacchia is better when swinging from the left side; Saltalamacchia and Lester worked together just fine in Game 1 against Tampa Bay. Oh, and he hits here to avoid giving Leyland the chance to use one reliever for four straight righties later on.
7. Xander Bogaerts, 3B
Farrell was asked directly after Wednesday's game if he would consider giving Bogaerts his first postseason start. He said he would. And the manager should quickly see that it's the right move. Will Middlebrooks is 1-for-10 with five strikeouts in the series, while Bogaerts doubled Wednesday, and has proven in each of his at-bats during these playoffs that the stage isn't too big for him. He belongs. And he belongs on the field.
8. Shane Victorino, RF
It looks as though the Tigers have developed an effective plan for attacking Victorino from the right side of the plate, and thus he's 2-for-16 in the series, with no walks and seven strikeouts. He's broken his bat more often than he's made good contact, and it should be his defense -- more than his playoff experience or his everyday status -- that keeps him somewhere in the lineup.
9. Stephen Drew, SS
If Bogaerts is in the lineup, it's either Drew or Middlebrooks who sits. Drew is a mess at the plate right now, as 1-for-13 and a .220 OPS both scream. But Middlebrooks has not been better enough than Drew to mitigate the value Drew brings defensively at shortstop. He's so far been a part of five double plays, he made a dazzling catch in medium center field that in many ways gave the Sox a chance in Game 1, and -- even with an error on his ledger -- he's steady. Lester got 10 ground balls out of the Tigers in Game 1. Farrell would be more comfortable with Drew at an important position on the infield.
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.
Five questions to be answered in Game 3, as the Sox try first to snap Justin Verlander's four-game scoreless streak, then beat the Tigers in a swing game of this American League Championship Series...
1. Can the Sox get to Verlander early? Boston had three hits in the first 16 innings of the series before striking for five hits and five runs over the final two frames on Sunday night, so the Sox' hope is that they're past those early problems offensively, or have at least adjusted to the way the Tigers are trying to pitch them.
But there's another side to those early innings, too. Over the course of the 27-inning scoreless streak he brings into Game 3, Verlander -- who is known to build up strength as the game wears on, particularly in terms of his velocity -- has been excellent early, and allowed to get into a rhythm. In each of his Division Series starts against the A's he faced the minimum of nine batters over the first three innings, and in his final regular-season start against the Marlins he finished the first three frames in 35 pitches after facing only 11 hitters.
Conversely, in four of the six starts he surrendered at least five runs this season, he allowed at least one run in the first inning. And when the Red Sox got to him for four runs in five innings on June 23, they forced him to throw 28 pitches in the second, then 29 in the third, while totaling four hits, a walk, and scoring three times over those innings.
Statistically, the right-hander's two best frames of the game this season were the sixth (2.70 ERA) and the seventh (2.18), so if may behoove the Sox to not let Verlander get off to the type of start that allows him to still be in the game at that point.
2. Do the Sox get aggressive or work counts? In the second game of their Division Series, the Sox swung early in the count so as not to let David Price get ahead in the count -- and they could take a similar approach today against Verlander.
Like the Rays' lefty, the Tigers' righty is particularly lethal when he gets himself in position to control the plate appearance, opponents batting .184 with a .492 OPS against him with two strikes, and .192 with a .453 OPS against him when the pitcher is ahead in the count. That last number includes only two homers and 16 extra-base hits in 340 plate appearances.
The Sox don't want to fall behind Verlander -- but, on the other hand, Game 2 reinforced the notion that the Tigers' bullpen is a liability. Jim Leyland mixed and matched his way through the eighth inning as though he didn't trust any one person to protect a four-run lead, and still a quartet of relievers couldn't hold the advantage. He didn't even trust Joaquin Benoit to work a second inning after allowing the game-tying grand slam to David Ortiz, yanking him before the ninth in favor of Rick Porcello despite Benoit having thrown just eight pitches.
Obviously, if given the choice, Boston's batters would rather face anyone from that bullpen more than Verlander. But in order to do damage against the starter, their best hope looks to be swinging early. So if that's what they do, they'd better not miss.
3. Is Dustin Pedroia about to get really hot? The second baseman had just three hits in his last 19 at-bats when he stepped in against Scherzer in the sixth inning Sunday night, but that high double he smacked off the wall might have been the start of something.
He followed it up with a single to right in the eighth, setting up Ortiz's heroics -- and possibly indicating that this mini-slump has reached its end. As consistent as his year-end numbers typically are, Pedroia is the type of hitter who becomes incredibly tough to get out when he's going well, and if he's about to embark on one of those hot streaks it will change the look of the Red Sox lineup dramatically.
Not only is he in an RBI spot behind Jacoby Ellsbury and Shane Victorino, and not only would the Sox love to have a man on base ahead of Ortiz, but another major benefit to a sizzling Pedroia would be that when he's feeling good, he is very difficult to strikeout. Based on the means by which Detroit has limited Boston over the first two games, that's an asset not to be underestimated.
4. Will Gomes reward his manager's faith? Among the highlights of the Red Sox' 2012 seasons -- yes, there were actually some of those -- was Daniel Nava winning a battle with Verlander during a late-May game at Fenway.
Coming with the bases loaded, Verlander threw Nava six pitches, five of them fastballs traveling at least 98 mph, and when the righty ramped the last one up to 100, Nava stuck his bat out there and lined a three-run double. It was the biggest hit in the game that pushed the Sox over .500 for the first time that season. And it was so big a moment, NESN even made a commercial out of it.
But, in Game 3, it appears as though Nava will take a seat, and Jonny Gomes will play left field. John Farrell suggested as much on Monday, when he told reporters he was anticipating a return to his Game 1 lineup.
"He can bring an overall personality to a team when he's in the lineup versus when he's in the dugout," the manager said. "These are the things at this point in time in the year I think you have to consider strongly with the attitude and the makeup that we present on the field."
Throughout this season Farrell has credited Gomes' chatter and attitude in the dugout among the reasons why the Sox have been so good late in games, and why Gomes is such a dangerously prepared pinch-hitter. But the manager said "there's a substantial difference" in the way his outfielder can impact the game when he's in the lineup compared to when he's not.
And apparently that difference is substantial enough that the Sox staff would overlook the fact Gomes is 0-for-9 with three walks and three strikeouts in 12 career trips against Verlander -- and leave themselves ripe for second-guessing if it doesn't work.
(For what it's worth, the aforementioned double is Nava's only hit against Verlander in three tries.)
5. Can john Lackey keep Austin Jackson and Torii Hunter in check? To this point, each of Detroit's top two hitters is 1-for-10 with three strikeouts in the series -- and making sure they stay cold will be important for Red Sox pitching, because there are indications that whatever was ailing Miguel Cabrera for most of the last six weeks is no longer limiting him as much as it was.
Cabrera is 2-for-7 in the series, though the home run he crushed in Game 2 was his second in three games, and his single in Game 1 would've been a double if he could run better. Then, when the hot bats of Victor Martinez and Jhonny Peralta are factored in to the mix two and three spots farther down the order -- and when considering that all three of those guys are hitting at least .333 off Lackey lifetime -- the Red Sox could run into trouble if they start letting Jackson and Hunter on base ahead of those guys.
Jackson is 3-for-8 (.375) against Lackey in his career, though Hunter is just a .232 hitter in 56 at-bats. So if the Sox' righty can continue that trend, and pitch to the level of his 3.83 ERA at Comerica Park, he should give himself a chance to get a win.
It never really got up into the night, needing just 3.9 seconds to cover the 387 feet between the barrel of the bat and the glove of bullpen catcher Mani Martinez, but even if it was more a line drive than a moonshot it was every bit as majestic as most anything he'd launched before it -- and thus it'll be the moment that Red Sox fans remember forever, especially if this series and this season end as they hope it does.
It was another signature moment in the storied career of David Ortiz, whose legend began late in a Sunday night American League Championship Series game, and who added to it again almost nine years later by anticipating Joaquin Benoit would go off-speed before viciously ripping it into the Red Sox' bullpen beyond right field. The third grand slam in the club's postseason history tied Game 2 of this year's ALCS at 5-all in the eighth inning, and effectively set the stage for Jarrod Saltalamacchia to even the best-of-seven series by knocking home Jonny Gomes in the ninth.
The designated hitter took a curtain call when the bedlam he brought to Fenway was still shaking the building minutes after the blast -- and deservedly so. But there's no grand slam if things don't fall perfectly into place before Ortiz spits on his gloves and steps into the box.
And thanks to his teammates, and the Tigers, they did just that.
A case could be made that the first piece of the puzzle that was completed with Ortiz pointing skyward and enjoying hugs near home plate was actually put into place back five days earlier, when Manager Jim Leyland brought starter Max Scherzer out of the bullpen with the Tigers facing elimination in Game 4 of their AL Division Series against the Athletics.
Scherzer worked only two innings during his second relief appearance in five years, though they required 47 pitches -- and all but four of them were under high-leverage stress. He entered in a tie game, but let Oakland take the lead within three batters in the seventh inning, then he loaded the bases before getting an out in the eighth.
It clearly didn't effect his ability to get ready for his next start, as he kept the Red Sox without a hit or a run until the sixth inning and struck out a season-high 13 hitters. Two of those punchouts came in the seventh, when he retired the side in order.
But before the eighth, Leyland and Scherzer both agreed that his night was over. "He was spent," the manager said afterward, although the righty still appeared to be in command of the game, and he had only thrown 108 pitches to that point. He's thrown more than that in 15 starts this season.
But, then, none of those had been preceded by a relief appearance. So Leyland was compelled to entrust a four-run lead to his bullpen.
And that's when the Red Sox found life for the first time in the series. Scherzer had essentially replicated what Anibal Sanchez did the night before, though the difference between Games 1 and 2 boiled down to how much more effective Detroit's bullpen was on the first night than the second, when Leyland tried to piece together six outs by playing the matchups -- but might've instead overcomplicated matters, considering he was working with a four-run lead, yet didn't allow any of his five relievers throw more than nine pitches.
His first move was to Jose Veras, who retired leadoff man Stephen Drew on a grounder to shortstop, then allowed Will Middlebrooks to rip a hit into the left field corner. When the Sox' third baseman hustled into second ahead of the throw, he stood there with a one-out double.
Next up was Jacoby Ellsbury, a left-handed hitter. Veras is a right-handed pitcher, but he'd thrown only three pitches to that point, lefties had batted only .233 against him during the regular season, and due next for Boston were righties Shane Victorino and Dustin Pedroia. Veras had struck out both of them a night earlier.
Ellsbury was 1-for-3 against Veras in his career, though he'd struck him out twice, and lifetime Ellsbury was 1-for-3 against Drew Smyly, too -- but Leyland nonetheless made the call to the best southpaw in his bullpen.
When he did, the manager had to be figuring of all the possible outcomes the best would be a strikeout and the worst would be that Ellsbury at least had to earn his way on. Smyly whiffed 81 batters in 76 innings this season, and walked only three between June 28 and the start of the playoffs.
But after getting to a 1-and-2 count against the Sox' center fielder, he missed the zone with his next three pitches. Ellsbury got a free pass to first. Smyly got the hook. And Al Alburquerque got his opportunity with one out and two aboard.
This one made the most sense for Leyland. Albeit in a limited sample, Alburquerque hadn't allowed a hit to either Victorino or Pedroia in his brief career, and his performance a night earlier had prompted his manager to say his stuff was as good as it had ever been.
That all still held true as Alburquerque struck out Victorino after a six-pitch battle -- though it didn't last through Pedroia's trip to the plate. Alburquerque threw a first-pitch strike, though all season the right-hander has been made to pay when not following that up with another quality offering. Opponents hit .480 against him this season when putting the ball in play on an 0-and-1 count. And so Pedroia just continued the trend when he smacked a single to right.
Had it been under different circumstances, perhaps typically aggressive third-base coach Brian Butterfield would've waved Middlebrooks around third in an effort to score with two outs. However, doing so would've not only risked killing the rally by making an out at the plate, but if Ellsbury and Pedroia had scooted up a base on the throw home, Detroit almost certainly would've walked Ortiz with first base open. Although it would've put the tying run aboard, Leyland would've likely taken his chances against Mike Carp or Mike Napoli, given how much the former struggles Sunday and the latter has had problems since the start of the postseason.
By holding Middlebrooks, Butterfield ensured Ortiz would get his opportunity to hit. The only question was who he'd hit against. Boston's DH had reached all three times he'd faced Alburquerque, so the incumbent wasn't a realistic option, but Leyland had two relievers primed and ready in his bullpen.
He'd set himself up for a choice between Benoit, the right-handed closer who is tough on lefties (they hit .188 against him this season), and who Ortiz had never homered against in 26 career plate appearances; and Phil Coke, the lefty who was left off the Tigers' ALDS roster, but re-added in time for this series in part because Ortiz had managed only two hits in the 18 times they'd faced off.
If Coke isn't to be used situationally in this spot, or against Ellsbury (1-for-11 lifetime) in that spot earlier in the inning, it's hard to see why he's on the roster at all. Yet, as Leyland emerged from his dugout, he tapped his right arm to summon Benoit.
One pitch -- and 3.9 seconds -- later, that looked like the wrong decision. Ortiz got his arms extended, got the head of the bat into the lower third of the strike zone, and crushed the ball on a line. When it landed, each of the four relievers Leyland had used was charged with one of the runs. The Red Sox had suddenly swung the momentum of this series in their favor.
And Ortiz had another moment that'll be mentioned on the day they hang his "34" among the rest of the retired numbers above right field -- this one made possible by his team's trademark resiliency and typical of his own dramatic relentlessness.
"This is a fighting group. We're not going to get down on ourselves. We're going to keep battling," catcher David Ross said. "No one thing sparked it; it was guys grinding out at-bats. Will Middlebrooks started it off with a basehit, running hard into second. Pedey had a great at-bat. Ellsbury with a great walk against the tough lefty that he faced. Victorino even threw a good at-bat on the righty. That's a collective group putting together a bunch of good at-bats."
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.
As Joe Maddon wore out the synthetic path between his dugout and the pitchers' mound, Red Sox fans started getting nervous that their team had missed its chance. Boston had wasted a bases-loaded, nobody out opportunity in the second inning -- when James Loney's length and reflexes turned Stephen Drew's might-be triple into a double play -- and then put five more runners aboard over the next three frames, but came away with nothing to show for it.
Meanwhile, Maddon was making pitching changes with the urgency of a manager whose season hung in the balance, and knew he couldn't afford to fall behind, but as the game got later his maneuvering became more normal. After six innings -- thanks to a David DeJesus single that delivered Yunel Escobar -- the Rays had a 1-0 lead, and Maddon had Jake McGee, Joel Peralta, and Fernando Rodney lined up in his bullpen.
For all the zaniness that had played out to that point, that's exactly how Maddon would've wanted it had starter Jeremy Hellickson given him six scoreless innings. And with the Sox offense having started to sputter since its early attempt to peel out and pull away, there was surely some angst setting in around New England and the Nation, as the possibility of returning to Boston for a winner-take-all Game 5 against David Price began approaching reality.
If there was panic setting in elsewhere, though, it never reached Xander Bogaerts. When he picked up his bat and headed to the box to pinch hit for Stephen Drew with one out in the seventh he had as many big-league postseason plate appearances as you did sitting on your couch in Melrose, but there's a chance you were more nervous than he was, at least based on the result of his encounter with McGee.
The Rays' fireballing lefty got ahead in the count, going up a ball and two strikes by blowing a heart-of-the-plate heater by Bogaerts. Given that count, the circumstances of the game, and the fact that it was the first playoff at-bat for a just-turned-21-year-old, it would've been more than excusable if Bogaerts expanded his strike zone. Especially against a reliever living between 96 and 97 mph.
Yet Bogaerts didn't. Ball two was up and in. Ball three was inside. Then ball four was high -- but it had to be enticing out of McGee's hand. It was over the middle of the plate, and Pitch F/X says it was only about six inches above the top of the strike zone, which is a significant distance, but not too easily discernible when the pitcher is throwing that hard, the count is full, and the hitter is trying to start a rally in the late innings of a playoff game. Again, had Bogaerts chased, he would've been excused.
Instead, no excuses were necessary. He took the pitch, walked, then after Will Middlebrooks struck out, the rookie made a good read by scooting first to third on Jacoby Ellsbury's single to right-center. That proved pivotal when Peralta bounced his first offering to Shane Victorino, and Bogaerts was in position to tie the game by dashing home on the wild pitch.
Victorino subsequently scored Ellsbury with an infield single, Bogaerts worked another walk that led to an insurance run in the ninth, and Koji Uehara capped a fantastic night of Red Sox pitching by closing things with a perfect ninth. Game over. Series over.
No need to panic. No need to face Price again.
"Resiliency is a word that continues to come up," heroic reliever Craig Breslow said after the game. "We came out tonight, we grinded through at‑bats, we came back from a one‑run deficit -- and that's been the trend all season. On any given night it could be a different guy who contributes, and tonight I would say it was 25 guys who contributed."
Bogaerts, in fact, was probably the 24th man on Boston's 25-man roster for the ALDS, if that determination is made based on the way John Farrell used his players. Yet there he was -- prepared, poised, and precocious enough to make a decisive contribution when his (telling) No. 72 was called, and help ensure that the Sox simultaneously reached the 100-win plateau and the American League Championship Series.
Who they'll face there is still to be determined, with Oakland and Detroit slated to settle that matter Thursday night. But regardless of whether it's the A's or the Tigers in Fenway's third-base dugout come Saturday, there should be no question who the favorite should be.
With every division series having so far played four games, the team that finished the regular season with the most wins in baseball is tied with the Dodgers for the most runs scored (26), and also has the best ERA (3.03) of any team other than the one-and-done Indians. Defensively, they're also one of two teams that hasn't made an error in these playoffs.
Put it all together and you'd be hard-pressed to find a weakness. Or a weak link.
Or a reason to worry at all.
Here's a look at each of the parts that summed to the whole in a 3-1 ALDS win over Tampa:
|Jacoby Ellsbury, CF||9-for-18 (.500), 1.137 OPS, 7 R, 2 RBI, 2 2B, BB, 4 SB: Scott Boras will make sure Ellsbury’s dominant series is on the foremind of those pursuing Ellsbury in free agency, though this was more than a contract push. This was further evidence that he’s one of the best postseason players in recent Red Sox history. Even with his 0-for-14 against Tampa in the 2008 ALCS, he’s hitting .310 with 19 runs and 27 hits in 26 career playoff games. (He’s a .370 hitter, with a .933, when that one series is removed.) In the middle of so much, he was, unofficially, the ALDS MVP.|
|Shane Victorino,RF||6-for-14 (.429), .984 OPS, 2 R, 3 RBI, SB: Victorino didn’t draw a walk in the series, but his .429 average spiked to a .556 on-base percentage because of the four times he was hit by a pitch. He invites those by standing on top of the plate, and refusing to bail -- but clearly that’s not the only reason he positions his body there. He batted better than .300 from the right side of the plate this season.|
|Dustin Pedroia, 2B||4-for-17 (.235), .505 OPS, 2 R, 5 RBI, 2B: Pedroia scuffled for most of the series -- yet he found a way not to waste the opportunities that Ellsbury and Victorino created by getting on ahead of him. His five RBI were tied for the most of anyone in the playoffs as of Wednesday, and what’s most remarkable is that only one of them came via a hit. If he’s better in the ALCS, so should be the Sox’ attack.|
|David Ortiz, DH||5-for-13 (.385), 1.479 OPS, 4 R, 3 RBI, 5 BB, 2B, 2 HR: The Rays weren’t eager to pitch to Ortiz, who walked five times in 18 plate appearances. That’s 27.8 percent of his trips, after his walk rate for the regular season was 12.7 percent -- though Tampa can’t be blamed for its decision, given how locked in Ortiz looks to be at the moment. His twin Game 2 homers were just two of the balls he squared up over the series.|
|Mike Napoli, 1B||2-for-13 (.154), .584 OPS, R, RBI, 4 BB, 2B: The Sox were hoping Napoli’s sizzling September would last into October, but he struggled at the plate (particularly after Game 1), and it wasn’t his best work in the field either (particularly in Game 3). He did draw four walks, though if Ortiz is going to be the threat he should be, Napoli has to afford him some level of protection.|
|Daniel Nava, LF||1-for-5 (.200), .629 OPS, 2 BB: As usual, Nava made even a 1-for-5 series look impressive and professional. Over the course of his seven plate appearances he saw a total of 49 pitches, and the only trip in which he didn’t see at least five offerings was when he swung on the second pitch and rifled a single to right against Hellickson in Game 4.|
|Jonny Gomes, LF||2-for-9 (.222), .697 OPS, 3 R, 2 RBI, 2 BB, 2B: He didn’t do much after his big double in Game 1, though that and his presence from the right side was enough to help the Sox win. Opportunities to start might be scarce for him in the second round, with both sides featuring four right-handed starters, so his renowned readiness will be key when he is called upon.|
|Jarrod Saltalamacchia, C||3-for-10 (.300), .764 OPS, R, 3 RBI, BB, 2B: The good news is that Saltalamacchia had a 1.000 average on balls in play. The bad news is that he struck out seven times in 11 plate appearances. The switch-hitter won’t be disappointed to see right-handed pitching in the ALCS, given his preference for batting from the right side.|
|Stephen Drew, SS||2-for-15 (.133), .400 OPS, R, 2 RBI, 3B: He had a triple off Price, and a single against Matt Moore, but Maddon matched things up so that Drew got only three at-bats against righties in the entire series before getting pulled for Bogaerts in Game 4. Expect him to be a bigger factor against the A’s or Tigers.|
|Will Middlebrooks, 3B||3-for-13 (.231), .683 OPS, R, RBI, 2B, 3 BB: He didn’t come away with a lot to show for it, but Middlebrooks put on a number of good, competitive at-bats in the series -- best evidenced by his working three walks. That’s as many as he had in all of September.|
|David Ross, C||1-for-5 (.200), .600 OPS, R, 2B: Any offense is a bonus, so his clean-out double against Price was a nice add-on in Game 2. The bigger value, though, came in his ability to help coax John Lackey through some command issues early in that same contest, and generally in the team’s ability to trust him behind the plate, which enabled them to hit for Saltalamacchia in Game 4.|
|Xander Bogaerts, SS/3B||0-for-0, 3 R, 2 BB: What a line that is. The right-handed nature of the A’s and Tigers makes it almost certain that Drew will remain the shortstop choice moving forward, but here’s something to keep in mind if Drew’s struggles continue: Jacoby Ellsbury had only one plate appearance in the 2007 ALDS. By the end of the ALCS, center field was is. And Coco Crisp was a pretty good defender, too.|
|Mike Carp, PH||0-for-1 (.000): He had a big chance in Game 3, when he was at the plate with the go-ahead run at third base in the ninth, and got punched out on a call he didn’t much appreciate. He should be in line for more opportunities in the next series, although his numbers against the A’s and Tigers aren’t too good over this year, or in his career.|
|Quintin Berry, PR||0-for-0, SB: The resident runner did his job -- at least according to Mike Winters, the second base umpire who ruled him safe on his steal attempt in Game 3 although Berry appeared to be out. The baseball gods saw to it that justice was served, however, and he was stranded.|
|Jon Lester, SP||7.2 IP, 3 H, 2 ER, 3 BB, 7 K: He set the tone perfectly, allowing only four baserunners in his first seven innings of work, and picking up what seemed at the time like a must-win with Price looming in Game 2. He has earned the opportunity to open the next series, too.|
|John Lackey, SP||5.1 IP, 7 H, 4 ER, 3 BB, 6 K: His teammates gave him a lead to work with, and though he didn’t go as deep in the game as he would’ve liked, he responded by keeping that lead and giving his team a chance to win. He belongs in the ALCS rotation, and pitching him in Game 2 means he can make both his starts at Fenway. That makes sense, given his splits. Then again, so might pitching Jake Peavy in Games 2 and 6, and letting Lackey have Game 4.|
|Clay Buchholz, SP||6 IP, 7 H, 3 ER, 3 BB, 5 K: He’s still not as sharp as he was early in the year. After giving up two homers in his first 100 innings, he’s given up three in his last two starts, accounting for all six of the runs scored against him -- but those bombs haven’t come off the bats of slouches. They’ve been hit by Chris Davis, Adam Jones and Evan Longoria, all of whom finished this season in the AL’s top 10. That says Buchholz is still good enough to take care of business. He just needs to be more careful against the most dangerous guys among the opposition.|
|Jake Peavy, SP||5.2 IP, 5 H, ER, 3 K: He didn’t get the win, and he left with his team trailing. But consider the trade justified.|
|Ryan Dempster, SP||IP, H, 2 K: His lone inning was in mop-up duty at the end of a 12-2 rout. But the fact he was warming in Game 3 suggests that if the matchup is right, Dempster is absolutely in the mix to pitch in the eighth inning of a close game.|
|Brandon Workman, RP||0.2 IP, H: He allowed an inherited run to score after taking over for Franklin Morales with two on in the eighth inning of Game 3, and subsequently allowing Escobar’s infield single and Delmon Young’s run-scoring groundout. But it was a positive performance. Had the communication been better up the middle, Escobar’s contact could’ve been a double play. And Workman threw strikes when he had to do so.|
|Craig Breslow, RP||3.2 IP, 2 H, BB, 4 K: Saltalamacchia declared the lefty the series MVP, and while we’d give that title to Ellsbury, Breslow is certainly a good choice. He ate up the heart of the Rays’ order by striking out four in a row during Game 4, when he was throwing as hard as ever and still in total command. He has followed up a great regular season with a most-encouraging start to the playoffs.|
|Junichi Tazawa, RP||2.1 IP, H, 2 K: He worked in all four games, but was asked to get just seven outs. That suggests that after sometimes pitching multiple innings over the course of the year, Tazawa is now seen as more of a short-term matchup type. And if that’s responsible for his impressive focus and uptick in velocity, then it appears he might again be the weapon he was last September.|
|Franklin Morales, RP||0.1 IP, H, ER, BB: The upside is intriguing, but his lone appearance was probably the more typical Morales performance. He retired just one of the three men he faced, walking one and allowing a hit (albeit on a botched bunt). It’ll be curious to see if the Sox give Matt Thornton a shot at being the third lefty in the Championship Series.|
|Koji Uehara, RP||3 IP, H, ER, 4 K: After Jose Lobaton’s walkoff homer in Game 3, there was some focus put on Uehara’s spotty postseason track record. Well, he faced nine hitters in the series. Four struck out. Lobaton was the only one who reached base. It says here that reports of his demise were slightly exaggerated.|