Red Sox win Game 3 by razor's edge; ALCS advantage feels bigger

Wednesday October 16th, 2013

Boston's Mike Napoli (left) hit a seventh-inning home run to account for the only run of the game.
Al Tielemans/SI



DETROIT -- A 1-0 playoff baseball game is like a compilation of the best deleted scenes in movie history. Look, there's Jonny Gomes crushing a Justin Verlander mistake ... foul. Never mind. And here are Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder batting with two runners on in the eighth inning ... strikeout, strikeout. Carry on.

But on Tuesday night, there were Mike Napoli and John Lackey -- two guys who almost got kicked off the set -- leading the Red Sox to a stunning 1-0 victory over Verlander and the Tigers in Game 3 of the American League Championship Series. As with so many playoff games, the what was not surprising, but the how and the who blew you away.

John Lackey? Seven months ago, most Boston fans would have gotten a Yankees tattoo if it meant getting rid of him. Yet there was Lackey, keeping up with Verlander by throwing 6 2/3 scoreless innings.

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Mike Napoli? Last winter, he had to convince team doctors that he would still be standing come October. He had avascular necrosis, a degenerative hip condition (and not, contrary to how it sounds, the desire to sleep with dead avasculars). Napoli's three-year, $39 million deal became a one-year, $5 million deal with performance bonuses.

Here is the set-up to the Red Sox' bonus performance: Seventh inning, 0-0 game, full count, Verlander vs. Napoli. Verlander had thrown two sliders off the plate, and Napoli had not bitten on either one.

"I decided to challenge him," Verlander said.

For the right-hander's 100th pitch of the game, he chose a fastball. It was fair to wonder if Verlander was worried about walking Napoli with a different pitch, which would have put the go-ahead run on base in a scoreless game. But Verlander was not worried. That is not how he thinks. Verlander is as confident as any pitcher in baseball. Besides, his control has been so good in this postseason, he had no reason to worry.

But his fastball caught too much of the plate. Napoli deposited it over the left field wall.

And that was it. That was all Boston needed.

The Red Sox now leads the series 2-1, which is astounding considering how well Detroit's starters have pitched. The combined numbers of Anibal Sanchez, Max Scherzer and Verlander: 21 innings, two earned runs, six hits, nine walks, 35 strikeouts.

It seems impossible for Boston to be leading this series. But it is not a fluke. And to understand why, let's go to one of those deleted scenes, in the bottom of the eighth inning.

Red Sox manager John Farrell had already pulled Lackey one inning earlier after 97 pitches. Measured by public perception, Lackey, who is in the midst of a five-year, $82.5 million contract, had one of the more amazing seasons in baseball this year. In 2011, he had a 6.41 earned-run average and 1.619 WHIP. He was a classic BOHC player -- he kept getting chances Because Of His Contract. He missed the entire 2012 season because of arm surgery.

Modern sports fans will forgive many sins, but wasting a team's payroll is not one of them. Lackey's seemingly open disdain for most human interaction did not help his cause. At the start of spring training this year, Pete Abraham of the Boston Globe wrote: "To fans, John Lackey is the most unpopular player on the Red Sox. There is no second place; that's how much of a landslide it is."

Then he had a resurgent 2013, probably because he was healthy. And suddenly, when Farrell pulled Lackey on Tuesday and Lackey was visibly upset, he was not a surly jerk ... he was a gamer! He wanted the ball!

"He's a big-game pitcher," Boston second baseman Dustin Pedroia said. "I faced him early [in my career] in the playoffs. You don't want to face a guy like that. He knows how to win."

Sure he does. But also he doesn't have to pitch as deep into a game as Verlander does. Farrell has a luxury in this series that Tigers manager Jim Leyland doesn't have: A bullpen overflowing with options.

Farrell replaced Lackey with lefty Craig Breslow in the seventh, and Breslow stranded a baserunner. In the eighth, Boston righty Junichi Tazawa had come on in relief of Breslow with one on and one out. He allowed a single to Torii Hunter and had to pitch to Cabrera with two men on. Cabrera is the best hitter in baseball in that situation, but he is battling a groin injury and maybe more, and he is so obviously a shell of himself. Tazawa struck him out.

Then Farrell called on closer Koji Uehara to pitch to Prince Fielder, who has morphed from a power hitter into a singles hitter in this pitching-dominated postseason. Fielder also struck out.

The line between these teams is thinner than the razors that the Red Sox refuse to use, but there it is. Boston has a better bullpen. Detroit's sluggers are not slugging. The Tigers can still win this series, but they don't have quite as many ways to win it as do the Red Sox, and now Detroit needs to win three out of four.

Tigers catcher Alex Avila said that there is one way to beat Uehara: Don't let him get in the game. But Detroit has only had one multi-run inning in this series: The sixth inning of Game 2, when the Tigers scored four runs.

So much can still change. So much changes, it seems, in every game. But for now, Boston has earned its 2-1 lead. The Red Sox won this one with a hitter who was supposed to be an injury risk, and a pitcher who was supposed to be a pitching risk, and now they are two wins away from the World Series.

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