For his first 99 pitches, Justin Verlander was unhittable. The next offering is single-handedly responsible for giving the Boston Red Sox a 2-1 lead in the American League Championship Series.
Mike Napoli hit that 100th pitch over the left-center-field fence at Comerica Park and John Lackey threw 6.2 shutout innings as the Red Sox bested the Detroit Tigers ace en route to a 1-0 victory on Tuesday evening.
The game was also highlighted by a delay in the bottom of the second inning, when a substation near the stadium surged and caused nearly all of the park's lights to go out. Play was officially stopped at 4:42 p.m. ET and resumed 17 minutes later, with neither side seeming adversely affected.
Especially not the pitchers. The majority of Game 3 saw Verlander and Lackey add another duel to a postseason that's been defined by excellent starting pitching.
Verlander didn't allow a hit through his first 4.2 innings of work, commanding the strike zone and overpowering the struggling Boston lineup. In the second and third innings, Verlander fanned six straight Red Sox batters en route to finishing with 10 strikeouts—his fifth straight outing hitting double digits going back to the regular season.
It was also Verlander's sixth career playoff game with at least 10 strikeouts, the most in MLB history, according to ESPN Stats & Info. As he cruised through the first six inning scoreless, Verlander looked to be in complete control.
But Lackey matched Verlander pitch for pitch. Hammering Tigers batters on the edges of the plate with his standard diet of fastballs and sliders, Lackey located his pitches brilliantly before dropping the bottom out with perhaps his best curveball of the season. Jose3030 captured a FOX graphic that showed just how far the curve was sweeping through the zone:
Lackey utilized his season-best stuff well, working his way through a two-on jam in the first inning before recording 10 straight outs, eventually retiring 16 of the next 17 batters he faced. With both teams scoreless through six innings, something had to give.
But few expected it'd be the 2011 AL Cy Young and MVP award winner. And even fewer expected it to be Napoli that would provide the killshot.
Napoli had only two hits in his first 19 postseason at-bats before stepping to the plate with one out in the seventh. He'd knocked in only one run and was slugging .176 prior to Tuesday evening. The 31-year-old first baseman was criticized in Boston for his poor play and was even benched in favor of Mike Carp with Max Scherzer on the mound in Game 2.
But with one mistake on a full count, Verlander allowed Napoli to break out of his slump with a towering shot that silenced the Comerica Park crowd. An exasperated Verlander watched on as the ball sailed over the fence, with his streak of 34 scoreless innings being washed away in an instant.
Napoli talked about the at-bat (via MLB.com): "He's tough. He was on his game tonight and he was keeping us all off-balance. I got a 3-2 [fastball] and put a good swing on the pitch."
Verlander wasn't phased despite the heart-breaking finish (via MLB.com): "I feel like I was right where I need to be. Hopefully I just maintain that. Hopefully I have a few more starts in the postseason and I just stay right where I'm at."
A half-inning later, Lackey would be the one upset—not at himself, but at his manager. When manager John Ferrell emerged from the dugout to take his bearded righty out of the game with Victor Martinez at first and two down to create a lefty-lefty matchup between Craig Breslow and Alex Avila, Lackey could be seen muttering words not fit for a family publication.
He walked off the mound having allowed just four hits and recording eight strikeouts, the highest total of his postseason career. Ferrell's move would wind up paying dividends when Breslow got out of the inning after an Avila walk, but the Red Sox's truly heroic bullpen performance would come an inning later.
With runners on first and third and one out, Junichi Tazawa and Koji Uehara struck out Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder in succession to kill the rally. The Tigers sluggers went a combined 1-for-8 in Game 3. Fielder has still yet to homer in 33 postseason at-bats.
Uehara would close the game out in the ninth without a problem to give the Red Sox the one-game advantage in the series.
The two teams will be back in action Wednesday night, when Detroit sends Doug Fister to the mound against Red Sox righty Jake Peavy. Fister went 1-1 with a 5.23 ERA and a .357 batting average against in two starts against Boston this season. Peavy, who was traded to Boston from the Chicago White Sox at the deadline, gave up four runs in seven innings in his only start against Detroit.
Player of the Game: John Lackey (SP, Boston Red Sox)
Will Lackey's Game 3 performance become the 2013 version of the so-called $14 million grand slam by J.D. Drew in 2007? The stakes might not have been as high as they were when Drew hit his slam against Fausto Carmona in Game 6 of the ALCS, but it's very possible we remember this as a turning point for the series.
Justin Verlander pitched well enough to win. He pitched well enough to dominate, taking perhaps the least deserving loss of the entire 2013 postseason. The Tigers' starting staff continues to vex Boston hitters to the point where seven of the nine men in the lineup are hitting .125 or worse for the series.
But Verlander made a mistake—the only mistake of Game 3 on the mound. Where Verlander had a flaw, Lackey turned in arguably the best postseason start of his entire career. He allowed four hits, only one of which went for extra bases, and came up clutch in the exact way the Red Sox had hoped when they signed him before the 2010 season.
Whether this sparks a run that carries the Red Sox to their third World Series title in the past decade is ultimately irrelevant. For this one night, John Lackey out-dueled Justin Verlander. First, there was the $14 million grand slam. Now, there's the $16 million shutout.