The 2013 American League Championship Series may be tied, but the Boston Red Sox are staring into the face of a very difficult challenge as the battle becomes a best-of-three starting on Thursday night. After dropping Game 4 in Detroit on Wednesday, Boston will have to rebound to once again win two of three games started by the Tigers trio of Anibal Sanchez, Max Scherzer and Justin Verlander.
After escaping the first three games of the ALCS with two victories, despite only scoring a grand total of seven runs, expecting the Red Sox to be as lucky as the series winds down would be foolish.
Detroit, despite the current 2-2 series tie, has been the better team from the opening pitch in Fenway Park on Saturday night. The biggest reason for their advantage: starting pitching.
Specifically, the Sanchez-Scherzer- Verlander three-headed monster atop their rotation. With apologies to Game 4 starter and winner, Doug Fister, the three right-handed starters that headline the Tigers rotation are difference makers that likely won't be deterred in their quest to reach the World Series.
Before we break down just how good each was in the first three games of the ALCS, consider this: all three struck out 200 batters during the regular season. Despite strikeouts rising by the year, not many starting pitchers reach the 200-strikeout plateau every season due to pitch counts, innings limits and injuries. A rotation with multiple 200-strikeout starters is rare, but a three-headed strikeout monster is even more eye-opening.
Over the last decade, there have been 105 individual 200-strikeout seasons recorded. The 2013 Tigers represented the first individual rotation to have three starters achieve the feat in the same season since the 1969 Astros. As Brian Costa and Daniel Barbarisi of The Wall Street Journal chronicled earlier this week, the ability of these starters to miss bats at a historic rate has changed the way Detroit's front office built the Tigers roster.
While the numbers were staggering during the regular season, the trio's dominance over the Red Sox offense in the ALCS has been even more impressive. Considering Boston's league-leading offense during the regular season, few could have expected a complete and total shutdown.
Yet that's exactly what Sanchez, Scherzer and Verlander did to the Red Sox in the first three games of the ALCS. As Joel Sherman pointed out in the New York Post, in 21 innings pitched by Detroit's top three starters the Red Sox have mustered six hits, two runs and struck out a whopping 35 times. Those six hits occurred in 69 at-bats. An offense that reached base at a .349 clip for the season managed to post an unimaginable .087 batting average when Detroit's aces toed the rubber.
In Game 1, Sanchez posted one of the most unique and ridiculous box scores in recent memory. According to ESPN Stats & Info, his 12 strikeouts were the most by any pitcher against the Red Sox in postseason history. Ever.
In Game 2, Max Scherzer posted his second consecutive postseason start with at least 11 strikeouts (via ESPN Stats & Info). The only other pitchers to accomplish that feat? Justin Verlander and Cliff Lee.
In Game 3, Justin Verlander's dominance (8 IP, 4 H, 1 ER, 1 BB, 10 K) extended his outrageous run since early September to nine starts. As displayed here, the Tigers ace has been as great during his recent streak, or better, than every other great run by 2013's best pitchers.
Of course, as any good Red Sox fan would remind you, the series is tied. Despite dropping Game 4, Boston still owns home field advantage in a series that will shift back to Fenway Park for Game 6 on Saturday. Plus, in spite of the numbers, Boston won two of the three games started by Sanchez, Scherzer and Verlander.
In October, logic doesn't always equal results. If it did, Detroit would have swept the series on Wednesday night and St. Louis would have easily won the Wainwright-Ryu battle in Game 3 for a 3-0 series lead in the NLCS. Neither happened, which gives the Red Sox hope.
Yet, there's an element of luck that went into Boston's victories.
If Jim Leyland hands the baseball to Phil Coke instead of Joaquin Benoit in Game 2, David Ortiz's momentum changing grand slam may never occur. If Miguel Cabrera was completely healthy, the ground ball that led to Jose Iglesias' errant throw to first base may never have transpired in the ninth inning of that same game. If Detroit had received a clutch hit in the eighth inning of Game 3, Verlander's lone mistake, a home run allowed to Mike Napoli, may have been erased and replaced with a victory for Detroit.
The details of how the Red Sox and Tigers have arrived at this point are no longer relevant. What matters is how one team will win two of the next three to represent the American League in the World Series.
Based on what baseball fans have seen thus far, it's hard to imagine Boston's offense scoring enough to top Detroit's pitching.
The luck is about to run out in Boston.
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