Justin Verlander didn’t get cute on Tuesday. He didn’t try to fool the Boston Red Sox, nor go looking for broken bats or quick innings. He just threw his fastball by one Red Sox batter after another. His location was unfair in its precision: He pounded a spot above the belt, but not out of the zone, impossible to let go by when behind in the count but just as hard to hit. With a free hand, even a fool could count the mistakes he made.
Mike Napoli wasn’t impressed. He came to bat in the top of the seventh having struck out twice in previous trips against Verlander, but on a 3-2 count, Verlander made one of those rare mistakes—another fastball, but this time not nearly high enough—and Napoli smashed it over the left-field wall. That was the only run the Red Sox would score all day, but it was enough.
The Red Sox and Tigers were the two best offenses in the American League this year. The Red Sox and Tigers were the two best offenses in the American Leagues this year. The Red Sox and—well, I’ll stop repeating it here, but please, keep repeating this to yourself, because it’s awfully hard to remember otherwise. The first three games of this series have seen a total of 13 runs, and eight of those came in two four-run bunches Sunday, the Tigers sixth and the Red Sox eighth.
I don’t think that proves what some people will say it proves, that good pitching beats good hitting and that the playoffs are necessarily low-scoring. Those people would have you believe that base-stealing, bunting and hitting and running become the focal point this time of year. Remember how the runs in this series have actually been scored, though. Eight of 13 on home runs. Two more on doubles, and one of those scored on singles coming after the runner who scored had doubled. It’s really extra-base hits that drive offense in October. Good pitchers limit positive offensive outcomes, so when a team can get one or two of them in, they have to make them count.
It’s also true that, if you watch the games actually unfold, keeping runs off the board has been a fairly impressive high-wire act for each side. The fewest pitches either team has thrown in a game is 127, the number the Red Sox needed to get past the Tigers in Game 2. Even then, it was only so low because Tigers batters didn’t need to work the count very hard in order to knock Clay Buchholz out of the game. They just kept swinging, and started making great contact.
Tuesday was the first time the Red Sox actually got shut down. They reached base just five times, after seven in Game 1 and 11 in Game 2. The Tigers have yet to reach base fewer than eight times in a contest. Both teams are applying pressure to the opposing pitching staff. It’s just that both teams also have great pitching staffs, and have gotten a bit lucky.
Verlander pitched better than either Anibal Sanchez or Max Scherzer did during their turns. He walked just one batter, while striking out 10, in eight innings, and Napoli was the only black mark on his record. He was facing the worst of the Sox’s three pitchers thus far, so the pitching matchup should have been a clear advantage for Detroit. Yet, Verlander was the first Tigers starter to leave the game while trailing.
Here’s where I see evidence that conventional wisdom about how to win playoff games is again off-target. Starting pitching gets disproportionate attention this time of year. It’s held up to be everything, more or less. The truth is, because starters can be volatile, and because the other team is rarely trotting out a true stinker (even Freddy Garcia and Ricky Nolasco, I have had to remind people, are proven Major-League starters, not seventh guys in rotations or injury replacements), it’s usually folly to set a ton of store in whichever team has the stronger hurler on a given night.
This goes back to the win statistic, by the way. Pitcher wins are a fatally flawed stat for a number of reasons, but the reason they really seem insidious to me is that they perpetuate the fallacy that starting pitchers drive the outcome of a majority of games. It isn’t so. More in October than ever, other things usually determine the winner of a contest.
No one holds back their high-leverage relievers. No one rests their starting catcher or ailing superstar. Starting pitching rotations get shorter, but in any individual game, it’s all the things around a starting pitcher that change and take on increased importance during the postseason, not the starter himself.
The Red Sox beat the American League’s best starter. Now the Tigers have to try to recover, with home-field advantage having swung back to their opponents as quickly as it came to them.Next post: Mike Napoli: A Playoff Hero, but a Huge Free-Agent Risk
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