When the Detroit Tigers take the field again in the ALCS, they'll be staring down the pressure of trying to avoid three consecutive losses in a best-of-seven series, attempting to avoid what would feel like an insurmountable 3-1 series deficit and looking to retake the momentum stolen from them when David Ortiz's grand slam cleared the Fenway Park fence in Game 2.
Despite looking like the better team for the majority of the first three games of the ALCS, the Tigers are down. But don't count them out yet. As the first three contests have shown, Detroit has the dominant starting pitching to curtail the high-octane Red Sox offense.
Winning three of the next four games won't be easy against a Red Sox team that didn't succumb to a losing streak of more than three consecutive games at any point of their 2013 regular season.
In order for the Tigers to rebound and guarantee a return to Fenway Park later in this series, they'll have to follow these steps to complete a comeback.
1. Hit Jake Peavy Like They Always Have
In 12 career starts against the Detroit Tigers, Red Sox Game 4 starter Jake Peavy has pitched to a 4.83 ERA. Although he's struck out more than a batter per inning (78 K in 76.1 IP) in his career against Detroit, the Tigers offense has blasted 13 home runs off him in that limited sample. In other words, more than one home run per outing.
Much like in the NLCS Game 4 battle between Los Angeles' Ricky Nolasco and St. Louis' Lance Lynn, it's hard to gauge the kind of pitching performances this matchup will bring to the table. After having difficulty navigating through Detroit's first three starters, the potent Red Sox offense is due to put runs on the board against a starter like Doug Fister.
For the Tigers to capture Game 4, they'll need their offense to score runs. During Peavy's career against Detroit, mostly during his AL Central days with the White Sox, scoring runs off the former Cy Young winner hasn't been a problem.
2. Get the Ball Back to Justin Verlander for Game 7
While it's possible that Detroit sweeps the next three games, completing a comeback in stunning and dominant fashion, that outcome is highly unlikely. As noted above, the Red Sox's worst losing streak of the season was three games. While that did happen to them five times, the prospect of it occurring now, with a World Series berth on the line, is hard to imagine.
In order for the Tigers to win this ALCS, they'll need to win a Game 7 in Fenway Park. If they can get this series to that point, home field won't matter because of who will be penciled in to toe the rubber.
After another outstanding performance in Game 3 (8 IP, 4 H, 1 ER, 1 BB, 10 K) from Verlander, the 30-year-old ace is in the midst of one of the most dominant stretches from any pitcher this season.
Dating back to the start of September, Verlander has made nine starts. The following chart shows how his outings compare to three other highly publicized dominant stretches from the 2013 season: Clayton Kershaw's and Matt Harvey's first nine starts and Jose Fernandez's last nine outings.
As you can see, all four pitchers were nearly untouchable. What makes Verlander's performance worthy of that group, despite the highest ERA of the four, is the timing. The last three of his nine-start run have come in October.
If the ALCS reaches a Game 7, the pitching forum will feature a rematch of Game 3: Justin Verlander vs. John Lackey.
Despite the outcome on Tuesday, Tigers fans should feel good about sending their star back to the mound in a deciding game.
3. Don't Be Deterred by Results over Process
As Joel Sherman pointed out in the New York Post, in 21 innings pitched by Detroit's top three starters (Anibal Sanchez, Max Scherzer and Verlander), the Red Sox have mustered six hits, two runs and struck out a whopping 35 times. Due to the lack of any extra-inning games in this series thus far, the two teams have played 27 innings of baseball since Saturday evening. For more than three quarters of the ALCS, Boston has looked listless and outmatched.
While the series may be 2-1 in favor of the Red Sox, the overall results don't give credence to each team's process of achieving them.
If the games continue to play out this way, or, in other words, Detroit's pitching continues to dominate Boston's lineup through the first two or three turns through the order, the Tigers are going to be just fine.
Confidence is fleeting in the must-win nature of October, but Detroit should feel good about its ability to take down this Red Sox team.
4. Change the Late-Inning Approach
As noted above, Detroit's pitching has dominated the start of each game. Not surprisingly, the box scores have reflected it. If the games were stopped at the conclusion of the sixth inning in each of the last three games, Detroit would have the scoring advantage in this series by a 6-1 margin.
Of course, this isn't Little League. In October, they play all nine. Unfortunately for Detroit, the seventh, eight and ninth innings have been its downfall. Through the first three games, Boston has flipped the script in the final third of games, outscoring Detroit by a 6-0 clip.
It's hard to pinpoint the exact culprit (bullpen decisions, defensive meltdowns, RISP) for Detroit's late-game issues, but they've all combined to contribute to consecutive losses and a series deficit. If the Tigers are going to rebound and ultimately take this ALCS, they'll need to win the final third of games, or, at the very least, keep them exactly where they are after six frames.
5. Awake Prince Fielder from His Slumber
Much of the talk about Detroit's weak offensive production during the postseason has revolved around Miguel Cabrera's injury issues and Austin Jackson's inability to consistently get on base. Throw in the ridiculous narrative around one of Detroit's few hot hitters, Jhonny Peralta, and it's easy to see how the spotlight has been taken off Prince Fielder.
The small sample size of October baseball often isn't fair to excellent players, so making the next few games a referendum on Fielder's career is foolish. Whether Fielder's bat comes alive during the remainder of the ALCS will have little to do with how his $214 million contract works out for Detroit long-term.
Yet, his performance does matter right now in the context of trying to win a World Series. Through the first eight games of Detroit's postseason run, Fielder hasn't been bad, but he's been far from an impact player. His .276 batting average and .364 on-base percentage mask the fact that he's slugged just .310 in October playoff games. In 33 plate appearances, the hulking first baseman has mustered just one extra-base hit.
With Cabrera a diminished version of the player he was during the first five months of the season, Fielder needs to step up and produce game-changing hits for the Tigers to have a shot in this ALCS.
Through the first three games of the series, Boston has won twice despite outscoring Detroit by a grand total of one run (7-6). If Fielder can find a way to lift a home run or two over the wall in the next four games, it could be the difference between a World Series berth and an offseason of questions surrounding the Tigers' expensive first baseman.
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