Tim O’Sullivan: Red Sox Game 3 victory less dramatic, just as improbable
It didn’t have the same miraculous feel as the Game 2 win. There were no late-game grand slams destined for folklore, no walk-off hero chases around the Fenway base paths. But the Red Sox’s 1-0 Game 3 win yesterday in Detroit was amazingly improbable in its own right.
How Boston scored, how Detroit didn’t score, the starting pitching, the relievers, the beginning, the end, even the final score – all of it had farfetched
touches. None of it, however, was a real surprise. Improbable has become the specialty of Boston’s bearded team, which now sits in the driver’s seat with a 2-1 ALCS lead.
Let’s start with the game’s lone run, Mike Napoli’s solo homer in the seventh off Justin Verlander. Napoli might have the biggest beard in the herd, but he had made the smallest amount of contact before the home run – 0-for-6 with six strikeouts in the series and 2-for-19 with 10 strikeouts in the postseason.
He had been benched in favor of Mike Carp in Game 2. He looked terrible in first two at-bats against Verlander yesterday, getting his doors blown off with fastballs and his knees buckled with breaking balls. But when Verlander left a 3-2 fastball over the plate in the seventh, Napoli erased that past and the scoreless tie.
Not only was it the first time Napoli had made solid contact against the Tigers, it was the first time Verlander had given up a run since Sept. 18, a string of 34 scoreless innings.
Like the Detroit starters before him, Anibal Sanchez and Max Scherzer, Verlander was masterful. He allowed just four hits and one walk over eight innings and struck out 10 along the way. So in three games the Tigers starting pitchers have now struck out 35 and given up a paltry total of two runs and six hits in 21 innings. And yet somehow the Sox have a 2-1 series lead.
John Lackey was the biggest part of that somehow yesterday. As brilliant as Verlander was, Boston’s starting pitcher was better. That would have sounded like an implausible statement before the game, and even more unlikely after the first inning. The Tigers hit Lackey hard in the opening frame, attacking first-pitch fastballs and putting men on first and third before Lackey fought his way clear.
But after giving up those two hits in the first, Lackey retired 17 of the next 18 batters he faced. He gave up a total of four hits, struck out eight, walked none and threw an efficient 97 pitches during his 6 2∕ 3, an inning total he was not happy about. Lackey clearly didn’t want to leave the game when Boston Manager John Farrell came to get him in the seventh inning, and for a time it looked like Farrell had made a mistake by bringing in Craig Breslow.
Breslow has been a model of consistency all year, a strike-throwing and out-producing certainty, but yesterday he walked two of the four batters he faced, creating problems in both the seventh and eighth innings. He got out of the mess himself in the seventh, but he needed help in the next frame after walking Austin Jackson, a free pass that didn’t make sense on either end. Breslow had walked multiple batters only two times in his 61 regular-season appearances, and Jackson was 3-for-33 with 18 strikeouts in the postseason.
Farrell lifted Breslow for Junichi Tazawa, who gave up a sharp single to the first batter he saw, Torii Hunter. That put men on first and third for the scariest hitter on the planet, Miguel Cabrera. It seemed a likely time for Farrell to call on closer Koji Uehara, to use his best against their best, but Farrell stuck with Tazawa.
The Sox had been beating Cabrera with outside fastballs, Tazawa has more heat than Uehara, so Farrell went with it, and it turned out to be the right choice. Tazawa fanned Cabrera and Uehara came on after that. Boston’s uber-closer needed a tidy 16 pitches to record the game’s final four outs, shutting the door on Boston’s first 1-0 win of the season.
As unlikely as the whole thing was for the Sox, it was just that painful for Detroit. The Tigers needed that game. They had their best pitcher on the hill, they were at home and they had the cloud of blowing Game 2 hanging over their heads. But none of that motivation mattered, not when the Red Sox had the power of improbability on their side.
(Tim O’Sullivan can be reached at 369-3341 or firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @timosullivan20.)