Detroit Tigers vs. Boston Red Sox: Keys to Each Team Winning ALCS Game 6
The Boston Red Sox and Detroit Tigers will wrap up the ALCS this weekend, with the winner advancing to the 2013 World Series.
Boston has an opportunity to put the Tigers away at Fenway Park in Saturday's Game 6, but earning a date with the St. Louis Cardinals hinges on several, team-specific keys.
Everything from pitch selection and bat control to lineup construction and player psychology is going to influence the outcome. Even with all those variables, expect a nail-biting finish. Four of the first five installments of this series were decided by a single run.
Probable starting pitchers Max Scherzer and Clay Buchholz combined for a spectacular 33-4 record during the regular season. Neither is accustomed to walking off the mound dissatisfied.
The following factors will determine which one does in this must-watch matchup.
*Stats provided by Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise specified.
Detroit Tigers: Get Alex Avila into the Batter's Box
Even if Alex Avila doesn't start Game 6 following this big collision at home plate, Jim Leyland better find an opportunity to insert him later on.
He's the hottest hitter that nobody has been paying attention to.
Avila's .971 OPS in the ALCS is the highest among Detroit Tigers batters. If you aren't impressed with such a microscopic sample size, consider that the backstop batted .325/.411/.494 in his final 29 games of the regular season after returning from a concussion. Prince Fielder was the only one of his teammates who had better production during that stretch.
The 26-year-old also owns attractive career numbers against Boston Red Sox starter Clay Buchholz (1.481 OPS in 14 PA, HR in ALCS Game 2).
Boston Red Sox: Lay off Max Scherzer's Slider
To say that Scherzer had the pitch working well that evening would be a gross understatement. Boston Red Sox batters didn't put a single one of his sliders in play! The right-hander finished with 24 total swings-and-misses, his most ever against an American League lineup.
Throughout the regular season, the Red Sox did most of their offensive damage against fastballs. No other major league team came within a Mike Napoli moonshot of them in terms of fastball runs above average.
Scherzer's heater is tough to square up, but it doesn't have quite the same effect unless there's a slider complementing it.
By laying off his most vicious breaking ball, the Red Sox can get into more favorable counts. It's much easier to speed up your bat in obvious fastball situations.
Detroit Tigers: Bully Stephen Drew
The national media—and even plenty of outlets in the Boston area—overlooked Stephen Drew as he enjoyed a very strong bounce-back campaign.
The 30-year-old shortstop batted .253/.333/.443 with 13 home runs in 124 games. The final few weeks of his regular season were especially impressive. Drew contributed a .980 OPS and eight extra-base hits from Sept. 12-28. He also excelled in the field, as illustrated by significant jumps in his Defensive Runs Saved an Ultimate Zone Rating.
Manager John Farrell noted his defense as well, via Joe McDonald of ESPN Boston:
There's been a lot of people calling for Stephen's head, seemingly, but he's a very good player. And in these games defense is a premium. When a defensive play hasn't been made and you give a team an extra out, as good as these two teams are, you're likely going to pay for that. I'm not saying that we don't have good defenders otherwise, but Stephen has taken good swings...
We'll cut off the skipper right there.
Drew has only three hits in nine postseason starts, translating to a .094/.121/.156 batting line. For comparison's sake, MLB pitchers combined for a .132/.164/.169 batting line this season. As if that weren't nauseating enough, he's been whiffed eight times in 18 ALCS plate appearances.
Max Scherzer and all Tigers relievers would be wise to walk the batters in front of Drew whenever a base is open. Force him to produce.
Boston Red Sox: Spraying Hits Down the Foul Lines
The Boston Red Sox were secretly hoping that Jim Leyland would bench Austin Jackson for his poor postseason hitting.
Instead, the old-school skipper opted to rearrange his batting order. Jackson's improvements the past two games from the No. 8 spot ensure that he'll start in center field on Saturday.
Between him and "Cirque du Soleil" performer Jose Iglesias, there's hardly any chance of getting a hit up the middle of the diamond.
However, Max Scherzer might indirectly help the Red Sox minimize interactions with those future Gold Glove winners. The awesome disparity between Scherzer's fastball and changeup—it's been about 10 miles per hour this October, according to Brooks Baseball—often results in premature and tardy swings.
So when Red Sox batters actually put balls in play, they'll more likely head toward the not-so-graceful bodies of Miguel Cabrera, Prince Fielder and Jhonny Peralta.
There should be an emphasis on using the opposite field, even if it comes at the expense of swing ferocity. The key for the Red Sox is making contact and optimizing their chances of finding landing spots on the Fenway Park grass.
Detroit Tigers: Don't Expand the Strike Zone Against Clay Buchholz
Clay Buchholz had outstanding results during the summer, but he's been crashing back to reality at an inconvenient time. Although he wasn't saddled with losses in either of his past two postseason starts, the opposition combined for a .950 OPS.
Zachary D. Rymer attributes his recent struggles to a lack of confidence in and consistency of the four-seam fastball:
All of a sudden, Buchholz can't throw his four-seamer for a strike to save his life, and he also hasn't been throwing it by anybody either. And as you can see, it's not a matter of velocity.
This is a bit of the old Buchholz coming to the forefront, and that's not a good thing. Establishing his four-seam fastball was a huge part of his success in the regular season, and now his four-seamer has abandoned him at a time when he needs it the most.
The Detroit Tigers chased Jon Lester off the mound after 5.1 innings in Game 5, and they aim to abuse Buchholz even more. If he isn't going to challenge them over the plate, then they shouldn't swing.
Remember, the Tigers must win Saturday and Sunday to advance to the World Series. Getting into the Boston Red Sox bullpen early and tiring out as many relievers as possible will surely give them an advantage if this series goes the distance.
Boston Red Sox: Hope That Xander Bogaerts Makes Smart Decisions
Rookies can have enormous, positive impacts during the postseason. Just look at what Michael Wacha is doing for the St. Louis Cardinals.
On the flip side, all their talent becomes irrelevant when the high stakes of October baseball overwhelm them and lead to poor decision-making.
Let's flash back to Tampa Bay Rays slugger Wil Myers and his notorious blunder in Game 1 of the ALDS (courtesy of MLB.com). For whatever reason, he peeled away from a deep David Ortiz fly ball at the last second. A seemingly easy out became a ground-rule double, and the Boston Red Sox scored five runs in the inning and never looked back in the series.
Yasiel Puig, likewise, shifted the momentum in Game 6 of the NLCS on Friday night with his pair of head-scratching throws. The Cards built a big rally by capitalizing on his compulsion to do too much.
Now, 21-year-old Xander Bogaerts is getting the starting nod for the Red Sox at third base, according to Joe McDonald. Regular season and postseason career combined, this will be his 23rd game.
Will he join those other former top prospects and watch the World Series from his couch after ruining a close contest with a gaffe in the field or on the basepaths? That's up to him.
Ely is a national MLB Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report and a sportscaster for 90.5 WVUM in Miami. He’s hoping to deepen relationships with his fantastic online audience (that means you) via Twitter.