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.
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