Through the first four games of the American League Championship Series, the Boston Red Sox had scored just three earned runs against the Detroit Tigers' lethal starting foursome of Anibal Sanchez, Max Scherzer, Justin Verlander and Doug Fister.
So yeah, it was clear when the Red Sox matched that total in the third inning of Game 5 that it was going to be their night.
After racking up 12 strikeouts and no hits against Sanchez in his six innings of work in Game 1, the Red Sox collected their first hit against him just four batters into Thursday's action. Mike Napoli kicked off a three-run frame with a blast to center field in the second, and also scored the Red Sox's fourth run of the game in the third inning when he scored on a wild pitch.
Those four runs were all the Red Sox were able to get, but they made them count. Jon Lester pitched 5.2 innings of two-run ball, and the Boston bullpen coughed up only one run of its own before Red Sox manager John Farrell called on Koji Uehara to get the last five outs.
And Koji Uehara being Koji Uehara, those last five outs naturally came with hardly any fuss. He retired all five batters he faced to seal a 4-3 win.
The Red Sox seemed lucky to be able to come away with a split of the first two games of the series in Boston, as they had been utterly dominated right up until David Ortiz's just-enough grand slam in the eighth inning of Game 2.
But here the Red Sox are now, having just taken two out of three at Comerica Park and needing only one more win to go to the World Series. With the series shifting back to Fenway for Game 6 on Saturday, they have to be feeling A-OK about their chances.
Actually finishing the Tigers off, however, isn't going to be easy. Not with Scherzer lined up to start next. And if he comes through, there will be Verlander waiting for the Sox in Game 7.
For the Red Sox to overcome one or both of these guys, some adjustments are in order. And fortunately for them, these adjustments are doable.
If you watched the Red Sox in Games 1, 2 and 3, you probably remember seeing a lot of swings and a lot of misses. If you watched closely, you might have noticed that there was one pitch in particular that was doing quite a bit of damage:
Sanchez, Scherzer and Verlander each have a slider in their arsenal, and they weren't shy about busting them out in the first three games of the series. Nor should they have been, given the success they were having.
That success is illustrated in the table below, using figures from Brooks Baseball. It shows the rate at which the trio used their sliders against the Red Sox, as well as the rate they picked up strikes, swings and whiffs and allowed balls in play. For some perspective, I've included how their sliders performed in these departments during the regular season.
|Player||Split||Usage (%)||Strike %||Swing %||Whiff %||BIP %|
|Sanchez||ALCS Game 1||26.72||38.71||41.94||25.81||3.23|
|Scherzer||ALCS Game 2||15.74||58.82||70.59||52.94||0|
|Verlander||ALCS Game 3||20.00||50.00||46.15||20.83||16.67|
Focus on what Sanchez and Scherzer did with their sliders in Games 1 and 2 for the time being. Both of them threw their sliders more frequently than usual, and the Sox bats didn't give them any reasons not to. While they laid off Sanchez's slider better than they did Scherzer's, they put hardly any in play.
The exact numbers: 48 sliders seen, and two put in play. My expert opinion is that's no bueno.
It's not surprising that Verlander followed suit in Game 3, which was actually a pretty big leap for him considering that his slider was his least-used pitch in the regular season. The leap paid off, as he got a fair number of whiffs and a couple of his 10 strikeouts with it.
However, the Red Sox did put Verlander's slider in play far better than Sanchez and Scherzer's. And while they didn't get any hits on those, that they weren't fooled as badly made for a solid sign that progress was being made.
Game 5 promised to be the real test, though. Since this is a piece about the Red Sox making adjustments, you might be thinking that they passed it. Pretty much, yeah.
Per Brooks Baseball, 30 of Sanchez's 108 pitches on Thursday night were sliders. The Red Sox were able to put five of those in play, including two balls that didn't go for outs.
I wouldn't say that Boston has neutralized it, but it's like this: The Red Sox stand a very good chance of overcoming Scherzer and/or Verlander as long as they can keep from being as baffled as they were in Games 2 and 3, and they stand a fine chance of doing that if they don't let the slider beat them. They've hinted that they can be equal to the task.
Now then, about the hard stuff...
The first thing the scouting reports for Max Scherzer and Justin Verlander most say is that they can bring the heat. The Red Sox ought to be well aware of that after what they most recently saw from them, as both Scherzer and Verlander were sitting in the mid-90s with their fastballs. And just like with the sliders, there wasn't much the Red Sox could do against it:
|Player||Split||Usage (%)||Strike %||Swing %||Whiff %||BIP %|
|Scherzer||ALCS Game 2||59.26||34.38||46.88||15.63||4.69|
|Verlander||ALCS Game 3||60.83||35.62||57.79||15.07||13.70|
The Red Sox weren't able to lay off the hard stuff or hit it, and they might be trailing this series right now had Verlander not put one right down the middle for Napoli in Game 3. The first bit of good news for the Red Sox here is that the question isn't so much about whether they can adjust—it's whether they can be themselves.
It's not like the Red Sox to be overwhelmed by fastballs. In fact, they led MLB in runs above average generated against fastballs during the regular season, according to FanGraphs. By a pretty huge margin, to boot. This is a team that should not be struggling against the gas.
And this leads us to the second bit of good news: If what they did against Sanchez is any indication, the Red Sox might already be pulling out of their funk.
Now, Anibal Sanchez isn't as reliant on his heat, as he only threw his four-seamer about 35 percent of the time during the regular season. It's not a huge surprise that his four-seamer wasn't the pitch that was giving the Red Sox fits in Game 1. They did a good job of laying off it while Sanchez was firing it all over the place, and in the end they only swung through five heaters.
In Game 5, however, the Red Sox were much more aggressive against Sanchez's hard stuff. He switched things up by using both his four-seamer and his sinker in roughly equal measure, but he picked up a total of four whiffs on both pitches. Also, five of the nine hits he gave up were on heat, including Napoli's moon shot.
That's more like the Red Sox, and it's a great sign they're going to be better prepared for Scherzer and (possibly) Verlander the second time around.
How much further will the ALCS go?
This is not to suggest that the Red Sox are due for a laser show this weekend. The Red Sox may have some mojo working for them, and there may be reasons to believe that their worst offensive performances in this series have already happened, but this is still Scherzer and Verlander we're talking about.
There's not much left to be said about the year Max Scherzer's had. He actually earned his 21-3 record during the regular season, and is now working on a 2.25 ERA in the postseason that has seen him strike out 26 in 16 innings.
As for Justin Verlander, he's not the pitcher who was struggling for the bulk of the year. He's struck out at least 10 in each of his last five starts, allowing all of one earned run in the process. He's himself again.
Along with Jim Leyland's new-look lineup, the awesomeness of Scherzer and Verlander is a big reason why the Tigers aren't out of this thing yet. But if I'm the Red Sox, I say bring it on. Scherzer and Verlander were almost flawless in Games 2 and 3 against a helpless Boston offense, yet the Tigers didn't win either game.
With Boston's offense poised to be less helpless the second time around, Scherzer and Verlander might actually have to be flawless in order to get the job done.
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