As Jon Lester showed in Game 1 of the ALDS, he excels when pitching at Fenway Park.
Call it Goliath versus Goliath.
With the big-market, hard-hitting Boston Red Sox and Detroit Tigers now set to do battle in the American League Championship Series, Game 1 starters Jon Lester and Anibal Sanchez have their work cut out for them.
When those two hurlers step on the Fenway Park mound Saturday night, they'll each be taking on an offensive juggernaut. Get this: The Red Sox and Tigers clogged up the top two spots in the majors this season in almost every offensive category, including runs scored, batting average, on-base percentage and slugging. Yes, really.
As good as both 29-years-old starters have been in 2013, it's going to be more than a little challenging for Lester and Sanchez to hold down either lineup for too long.
Let's break down their performances this season and in the postseason to get a better idea of how they might fare in Game 1.
What to Expect from Lester
First, the basics. The veteran left-hander throws three different kinds of fastballs (four-seamer, two-seamer and cutter) and clocks in the mid-90s. He also possesses a curve and a changeup and will use every pitch in his repertoire with some regularity.
Lester last pitched against the Tampa Bay Rays in Game 1 of the ALDS last Friday, meaning he'll be going on seven days' rest. In that win, he gave up only two runs—both via solo shots by righty hitters Sean Rodriguez and Ben Zobrist—on three hits to go with seven whiffs against three walks over 7.2 frames.
As for how he has handled the Tigers in 2013, here are his numbers in two starts:
While those stats aren't overly impressive—particularly the 17 hits in 12.2 innings—Lester did keep Detroit at bay in his second outing against the Tigers at home on Sept. 3. In that one, he went seven innings and allowed only one run on eight hits, with nine strikeouts to zero walks.
This is what it looked like:
That's worth remembering, since Saturday's Game 1 will again be at Fenway. It's also promising for Boston that Jon Lester figured out whatever demons were plaguing him at home a year ago, when he struggled to the tune of a 6.31 ERA and 1.59 WHIP in his own park. In fact, Lester's numbers have been better across the board at home than on the road this season for the first time in a few years.
The other aspect to consider here is how the Tigers lineup has hit against southpaws like Lester. As you might imagine, given the club's overall offensive prowess, they have done some damage:
Detroit is teeming with batters who hit from the right side, which explains that success and could also pose a challenge for Lester.
The Tigers, though, aren't getting much production out of the likes of Austin Jackson (2-for-20, 13 whiffs), Torii Hunter (3-for-19) and Omar Infante (4-for-18) this postseason. That puts even more onus on Miguel Cabrera (5-for-20, HR), Victor Martinez (9-for-20, HR) and Jhonny Peralta (5-for-12, HR) Saturday.
It'll also be interesting to see if Detroit manager Jim Leyland decides to start switch-hitter Brayan Pena (.264/.278/.330 against lefties) at catcher over Alex Avila, considering that Avila is just 2-for-15 in October and only went 11-for-79 against southpaws this season.
Prince Fielder, the Tigers' only other everyday starter who hits from the left side, is obviously going to get the nod at first base, but all five of his hits in the ALDS were singles. Interestingly, though, he managed to post the exact same OPS (.819) against lefties as righties this season after years of problems against southpaws.
What to Expect from Sanchez
Like Lester, Anibal Sanchez has a deep and varied pitch selection that includes a four-seamer, two-seamer, slider and changeup, as well as the occasional cutter and curve. The righty also sits in the low-to-mid-90s but has seen his velocity tick up this year, and he can reach back for 96 mph when he needs it.
Sanchez will be on regular rest, having last pitched in Monday's Game 3 of the ALDS against the Oakland Athletics, which didn't go well. He allowed six runs (five earned) on eight hits in only 4.1 innings. That's the sort of outing that leaves a bad taste in any pitcher's mouth.
In somewhat of an odd twist, not only has Sanchez not faced the Red Sox in 2013, he hasn't gone up against the team that originally signed him since the second start of his career back in 2006. So no use bringing up his stats against Boston.
Instead, let's focus on Sanchez's road performance this year, since he'll be in Boston's Back Bay on Saturday:
Aside from his home ERA of 2.70, every other road stat in the table above is worse than what Sanchez did at Comerica Park. The disparity wasn't marked, though, and this shouldn't be taken to mean that Sanchez is toast in Game 1.
Finally, let's pick out how the Red Sox lineup did against righties like Sanchez:
|STATISTIC||RED SOX||MLB RANK|
Um, that's scary good.
What's more, the Red Sox have stolen 94 out of 107 bases in games started by opposing righties, which was by far the best success rate in the majors this season. Sanchez, meanwhile, allowed a career-high 25 swipes and only had a base-stealer cut down once, so that could be something to watch if the right Sox hitters get on base.
On the good side of things for Sanchez, he ranked among the league leaders in HR/9 (0.45) and HR/FB (5.8 percent). Of course, that went right out the window in his Game 3 start. After allowing only nine homers all season long, Sanchez surrendered three in his 4.1 innings of duty against Oakland, all of which came against lefty hitters.
The Red Sox have plenty of those, with Jacoby Ellsbury, David Ortiz, Jarrod Saltalamacchia, Stephen Drew and Daniel Nava all likely to start.
Shane Victorino, meanwhile, is normally a switch-hitter, but injuries have forced him to hit exclusively from the right side, which he's done quite well. He'll be joined from that side of the plate by Dustin Pedroia (.722 OPS against RHPs), Mike Napoli (.816) and Will Middlebrooks (.656). Only Middlebrooks struggles mightily against same-side pitching.
The Red Sox offense is still firing on all cylinders, hitting .286/.390/.414 and averaging six-plus runs per game in the postseason. The Tigers, by comparison, are slashing just .235/.299/.321 and scoring only 3.4 runs per outing. Plus, Detroit's lineup wasn't nearly as good on the road (.268/.328/.414) as it was at home (.300/.365/.456) this year.
That Detroit downturn, combined with how great Boston is at home (53-28 with a .285/.354/.464 during the season), is likely going to mean Anibal Sanchez will face a much tougher task than Jon Lester on Saturday night.
It's been a quite a while since Sanchez pitched against the Red Sox—like seven years—and after Game 1, there's a good chance he'll want to go another seven years before seeing them again.