For the first time since 2008, the Boston Red Sox are playing for the American League pennant, facing off against the Detroit Tigers in the American League Championship Series that begins Saturday night at Fenway Park.
Boston's turnaround this season has been nothing short of remarkable, with the Red Sox outscoring their opposition by nearly 200 runs and dispatching of the Tampa Bay Rays in the first round of the playoffs with little trouble.
The Tiger brings with them an entirely new set of obstacles for the upstart Red Sox to overcome. Let's take a look at the steps Boston needs to take in order to punch its ticket to the Fall Classic.
Thanks largely in part to Jacoby Ellsbury's MLB-leading 52 swipes, the Red Sox ranked fourth among MLB teams in stolen bases during the regular season with 123.
Detroit's starting catcher, Alex Avila, was one of the worst at controlling the opposition's running game, throwing out only 17 percent (15-of-88) of runners that tried to steal a base against him.
With those numbers and the Red Sox having a trio of players atop their lineup—Ellsbury, Shane Victorino and Dustin Pedroia—capable of causing problems with their legs when they get on base, Boston would be foolish to not force Alex Avila to try and slow them down.
After all, getting runners into scoring position for the power bats in the lineup is never a bad thing.
Yes, Miguel Cabrera is the most dangerous hitter in baseball, and yes, he turned on a Sonny Gray fastball that was high and tight, sending the pitch screaming over the left field wall for a two-run home run in Game 5 of the ALDS.
But Cabrera isn't himself, hampered by injuries to his abdomen and groin—and the Red Sox need exploit that fact far more than Oakland did.
When he's at the plate, force Cabrera to swing at pitches on the outer half of the plate, where his injury-depleted power becomes less of an issue. When he's in the field, Boston needs to look to hit balls his way.
A healthy Cabrera has difficulty making plays; an injured Cabrera, with his already limited range even less than it usually is, becomes a major defensive liability. Whether it's Jacoby Ellsbury dropping a bunt up the third base line or batters looking to go to the opposite field, forcing Cabrera to try and make a play on defense is only going to work out in Boston's favor.
While former Red Sox prospect Anibal Sanchez won the American League ERA crown with Detroit this season, the 29-year-old is coming off of one of the worst pitching performances of his career—and he's never thrown a pitch at Fenway Park.
He's only faced the Red Sox once, back in 2006 when he was a member of the then-Florida Marlins, which matters little in the grand scheme of things, as not only is Sanchez a better pitcher than he was back then, but the Red Sox are a significantly different team.
But Sanchez will be facing off against Jon Lester in Game 1, and Lester shut down Detroit when last the two teams met on Sept. 3, tossing seven innings of one-run ball, allowing eight hits and fanning nine. He's also been significantly better at home (7-1, 3.09 ERA, 1.16 WHIP) than he has been on the road (8-7, 4.21 ERA, 1.39 WHIP) this season.
Sure, Sanchez is going to watch plenty of video and do his homework before Game 1, and pitchers facing a lineup for the first time tend to do better than they do against lineups that they've faced before.
But the Red Sox have the advantage on the mound in Game 1—and taking advantage of that could set the tone for the rest of the series.
Stephen Drew had himself a solid season for the Red Sox, playing slightly above-average defense at shortstop while hitting .253/.333/.443 with 16 home runs and 67 RBI.
But that production at the plate disappeared against Tampa Bay in the ALDS. Drew went hyst 2-for-15 with a triple, a run scored and two RBI.
Xander Bogaerts, one of the top prospects in baseball, saw action in two games against the Rays, drawing a pair of walks and scoring three runs without recording an official at-bat.
There's no question that there's a risk in starting an inexperienced 21-year-old in the playoffs, especially against an incredibly dangerous Detroit rotation that has the talent to make even the most established hitter look foolish at the plate.
But if Drew isn't going to contribute anything offensively, there's no harm in seeing if Bogaerts can give the team's lineup an extra boost.
Only the Atlanta Braves (56-25) were more successful at defending their home turf than the Boston Red Sox in 2013, with an American League-best 53-28 mark at Fenway Park
Boston took two out of three from Detroit when the Tigers came to visit during the regular season, outscoring the potent Tigers attack 22-8 over those three games. When the Red Sox had to travel to Comerica Park, things didn't go nearly as well, with Boston dropping three out of four and getting outscored 27-21.
With four of the possible seven ALCS games being played just off of the Mass Turnpike, the Red Sox cannot afford to head back to Detroit with the Tigers having a chance to clinch at home.