At first, it’s a little bit hard to see what makes Boston Red Sox starter Clay Buchholz so tough on opposing batters. He can throw hard, but usually isn’t blowing people away, and anyway his performance is much more consistent than his velocity. His breaking stuff is fine, his changeup works, but he doesn’t miss or break a ton of bats. Still, he gets outs. How?
That answer becomes apparent whenever he stops getting those outs, when things go sour for him, as they did in the sixth inning of Game Two of the 2013 American League Championship Series, Sunday night in Boston. The Detroit Tigers scored four runs off of him over the course of six at-bats in that frame, going flyout, home run, double, double, flyout, home run. Six straight balls hit in the air, four of them doing major damage. The reason, in a rare victory for FOX color commentator Tim McCarver in his usually futile efforts to diagnose and assign value to pitch location, was that Buchholz started getting the ball up.
Rarely, if ever, does Buchholz blow a fastball by a guy in the strike zone. It isn’t his style. He aims for the bottom of the zone with his heat, then uses his secondary pitches to get bad swings on pitches out of the zone. Clay Buchholz relies almost completely on consistently getting the ball down.
Through five innings, he was doing it, and although the Tigers got a run off of him in the top of the second, he was in command. Of the first 19 Tigers batters, six hit ground balls, six struck out, one was hit by a pitch. One popped up to the shortstop, one hit a soft line drive. Only four true fly balls left Tiger bats while Buchholz was commanding his stuff.
In the sixth, though, he got too many pitches up. Way too many. It wasn’t as egregious as the broadcast booth would have had you believe, but it was happening. In a lot of games, against a lot of teams, Buchholz might have been able to pitch around his mistakes. Unfortunately for him, the Tigers offense is vicious when they get something to hit. As is true for a pitcher facing Boston, only consistently excellent execution permits one to avoid disaster. In short, the Tigers were too good not to kill Buchholz when he faltered.
So it was that the Red Sox went to their bullpen in the sixth inning Sunday night, the game seemingly lost already. Manager John Farrell, who has used only three relievers (Junichi Tazawa, Craig Breslow and Koji Uehara) to get important outs during the playoffs, relieved Buchholz in favor of Brandon Workman, and three outs later, swapped Felix Doubront in after Workman. Through the top of the eighth, Detroit led 5-1, and Boston seemed doomed.
That was because Max Scherzer simply refused to make mistakes on Sunday night. He didn’t give up a hit until the sixth inning, when Shane Victorino made an adjustment and lined a single into left field. Dustin Pedroia did Victorino one better, taking Scherzer off the Green Monster, high up and well over toward left-center, where the wall stops giving batters doubles and starts taking away home runs instead, bringing home a run that didn’t feel terribly meaningful.
Scherzer pitched out of that frame, and cruised through the seventh. He left with 13 strikeouts, two walks and just those two hits allowed, throwing 108 pitches.
Jose Veras took over to begin the eighth. He’d made Victorino and Pedroia look foolish in a two-batter appearance Saturday night, in Game One, fanning both. He got a first-pitch groundout from Stephen Drew, but then gave up a double to Will Middlebrooks. Drew Smyly came in to face Jacoby Ellsbury, but walked him. Al Alburquerque got the ball next, and struck out Victorino, but allowed a Pedroia single to load the bases. With David Ortiz due, Jim Leyland called for his closer, Joaquin Benoit.
There was something very wrong with Leyland’s management of that inning, if mostly in a non-sabermetric sense. Playing the matchups is fine, but for one thing, the Red Sox aren’t the Reds. They’re not even the Tigers. Most Sox batters have relatively small platoon splits. The only ones with large ones, Jonny Gomes, Mike Napoli and Mike Carp, were the only ones not involved in this long sequence. Using three pitchers to get two outs didn’t make a ton of sense, even statistically.
In a more subjective way, though, it was a bigger gaffe. Those pitching changes gave the crowd a chance to get into what was, until the Pedroia single really, a tepid rally. It precluded any of the guys who took the ball from really finding a rhythm. It also wasted bullets: If you’re going to use Smyly to get one out against a lefty, save that move for when David Ortiz is due.
Calling for Benoit made sense. Alburquerque was actually about as good against lefties as against righties this season, but is a worse pitcher than Benoit overall, and Benoit also has a very small platoon split. Benoit is a bit more homer-prone, which might have been cause for hesitation, but he’s the closer, and again, the best arm the Tigers have in relief. Bringing him in was not a mistake.
The mistake was getting to that point. Leyland should have started the inning with Smyly, and planned to have him face Drew, Middlebrooks and Ellsbury, or with Alburquerque or Veras, and planned to have them pitch the whole inning. The way he handled his bullpen put the Tigers in a bad situation.
Ortiz made Leyland pay for his mistakes, just as the Tigers had made Buchholz pay for his. He took the first pitch to right-center field, over the wall, into the Red Sox bullpen. The swing wasn’t quite classic Ortiz. It was something a bit more desperate, overrotated, a yank-swing that accounted for and declared war on the cold and heavy air. It lacked his easy balance, and the lift that comes to him so naturally most of the time. Still, he hammered the ball, and Torii Hunter’s attempts to summon all the king’s horses and all the king’s men couldn’t stop the ball from carrying the fence and tying the game.
Benoit got Mike Napoli, but the damage was done. Uehara cruised through the ninth inning, retiring the side in order, preventing Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder from even getting another crack at it. Jonny Gomes led off the bottom of the frame with a ground ball on which defensive replacement shortstop Jose Iglesias tried to do too much, resulting in a throwing error that put Gomes on second base. Rick Porcello, in the game for reasons surpassing understanding (Benoit should have stayed in), then threw a wild pitch, ensuring that when Jarrod Saltalamacchia singled into left field, it was over.
It’s possible to call this game sloppy. It’s possible to chide the Red Sox for failing to adjust more quickly to Scherzer, for once again being no-hit for over half the game. It’s possible to question Buchholz’s ability to deal with adversity on the mound, to head off big innings. It’s certainly possible to focus on the ham-fisted bullpen deployment by Leyland, or on that error-wild pitch sequence that set up the winning run.
I don’t think that’s fair, though. I think the correct way to look at this game is to acknowledge how hard it is to operate with such a small margin for error. It’s correct to note that the Red Sox scored their first run with just two hits, both coming after two were out. It’s correct to give credit for the big innings each team put together to the fact that each lineup has terrific depth, and doesn’t let you off the hook easily. It’s correct to note that when mistakes become this glaring and costly, it’s because the other team has taken full advantage, not continued the string of mistakes by letting the first one become a missed opportunity.
The series goes to Detroit, now, tied 1-1. For the Red Sox, the keys to victory are what they always were. The top of their order needs to get on base. In Game One, Ellsbury and Victorino each went 0-4, striking out three times apiece. In Game Two, they reached base four times. That’s the difference between an elite offense and a miserable one for Boston. Detroit just needs a plane ride without turbulence, because Miguel Cabrera is clearly starting to feel healthy, and unless that changes, look out, Red Sox pitching.
Leyland needs to sort out in whom he has confidence in relief, and when. Farrell might be more willing, next time, to use his shock troops as a bridge to the set-up men he really trusts, since both Workman and Doubront acquitted themselves well. In late-game sequences, Farrell is a better manager. The question will be whether the gap between the starting pitchers—Justin Verlander and John Lackey aren’t an even match—and the resurgent Tigers offense can keep the team out of sticky spots like the one the Red Sox put them in on Sunday. This is shaping up to be a classic League Championship Series, which has been a bit of a rarity lately.Next post: MLB Postseason: Which of the Four Teams Left Has the Brightest Future?
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