The American League East champion Red Sox open the AL Championship Series at home against the AL Central champion Tigers on Saturday night with Boston's Jon Lester opposing Detroit's Anibal Sanchez on the mound. The Tigers won the season series 4-3, though the Red Sox won the most recent series in September, taking two out of three at Fenway Park.
Player To Watch: Miguel Cabrera, Tigers 3B
As baseball's best hitter, Cabrera should always be watched for every pitch of every at bat, but his recent injury woes had sapped most of his power over the last six weeks -- at least until he turned on a 94-mph fastball for a two-run homer off Oakland's Sonny Gray on Thursday night.
That blast alleviated Detroit's concerns somewhat, but entering ALDS Game 5, Cabrera had just two extra-base hits (one homer and one double) in his previous 97 at bats, dating back to Aug. 27. His .375 on-base percentage over that period was still impressive, but he lacked his trademark game-changing power, which is something that had been on display earlier in August during a 20-game span in which he homered 11 times.
As pitch-tracking guru Dan Brooks noted on Twitter, the A's had their success early in the ALDS against Cabrera by pounding the strike zone with fastballs -- they used the pitch 86.54 percent of the time against him, which was almost exactly 20 percent higher than opponents threw to Cabrera for the rest of 2013. (For monthly tracking info, check BrooksBaseball.net.) Cabrera's homer on the high heat may change that thinking, so it'll be interesting to see how the Red Sox -- who'll start the lefthanded Lester and three righthanders, Clay Buchholz, John Lackey and Jake Peavy -- approach the reigning AL MVP and Triple Crown winner.
Key Matchup: Detroit's righthanded rotation vs. Boston's lineup
The Tigers' playoff starters include the 2011 AL Cy Young winner and MVP who dominated the A's twice in the ALDS (Justin Verlander), the likely 2013 AL Cy Young winner (Max Scherzer), the AL's ERA champ this year (Sanchez) and the most overqualified No. 4 starter in baseball (Doug Fister), who ranked 19th in the AL in ERA this season and third in groundball rate.
That formidable rotation is all righthanded, and it just so happens that the Red Sox hit righthanded pitching better than any team in the majors this year. Boston had an .818 OPS that outpaced the second-place club (Detroit, incidentally) by 30 points. David Ortiz led the way with 23 homers and an OPS just shy of 1.100 against righties. Daniel Nava, Stephen Drew, Jarrod Saltalamacchia, Jacoby Ellsbury and Mike Napoli were the other regulars with an OPS of at least .815 against righties.
Stat To Know: Tigers' K/9
The tri-aces of Verlander, Scherzer and Sanchez helped Detroit's staff set an all-time record for highest strikeout rate in baseball history by averaging 8.79 punchouts per nine innings. The Nos. 4 and 5 starters, Fister and Rick Porcello, are both sinker-heavy groundball specialists who nevertheless had personal bests in strikeout totals, thereby helping the starting rotation to an 8.63 K/9 ratio, which also set a major league record, barely edging out the Mark Prior and Kerry Wood-led 2003 Cubs.
The Tigers will be facing a Red Sox lineup that struck out 1,308 times this season, the AL's fourth-highest total. The Sox also swung at just 20.4 percent of first pitches, the lowest rate in the league, so if Detroit is filling the zone with early strikes, Boston's hitters may have a tough time digging out of bad counts.
Roster Snapshot: Tigers' shortstop quandary
Jose Iglesias is preternaturally gifted on defense. Jhonny Peralta is a two-time All-Star because of his bat. Each is below average at the other's strong suit. Whom should manager Jim Leyland start at shortstop? In the ALDS, Leyland started Iglesias there in the first four games -- with Peralta starting two of those games in leftfield -- but in the do-or-die Game 5, Peralta got the nod at short.
Look for Iglesias to start behind Fister because there will be extra balls hit on the ground, but it'll be interesting to see whom Leyland gives the bulk of the playing time to behind his other three starters; it may depend more on how well the rest of the lineup is hitting and if Peralta can capably manage leftfield.
X-factor: Boston's late-inning edge
Scoring is at a premium in the late innings of modern baseball games because of the growing number of live arms in set-up roles and the increasing number of matchup relievers, yet the Red Sox are the exception. They scored nearly as many runs in the final third of the game as they did in the generally more prolific middle third; in fact, their 250 runs in innings 7-9 led baseball by 30 while the Tigers plated just 179 runs late in games, which ranked in the majors' bottom third.
That divide may be exacerbated by the discrepancy in their bullpens. Though Boston didn't have the game's deepest bullpen by any stretch -- both remaining NL teams have better ones, for instance -- it still has a superior group of relievers when compared to Detroit. The Red Sox blew eight fewer leads this season than the Tigers and had a 3.70 reliever ERA compared to Detroit's 4.01. Given Koji Uehara's dominance in the second half (0.22 ERA July through September) as well as the emergence of Craig Breslow (1.81 season ERA and 3 2/2 scoreless frames in the playoffs), the Sox arguably have the two best relievers in this series.
Prediction: Tigers in 7