Mike Napoli didn’t get a very good look at Anibal Sanchez the first time around. Sanchez had held Napoli’s Boston Red Sox hitless in his six innings during Game One of the 2013 ALCS, striking out 12. Napoli had fanned twice and walked once against him, but was clearly uncomfortable the whole night.
On Thursday night, Napoli took the first four pitches Sanchez threw, getting ahead in the count 3-1. He noticed right away what pretty much everyone noticed: Sanchez, while still a tough opponent, was not sporting the unhittable secondary stuff (a devastating changeup-slider mix) that had made him so dominant last time around. When Sanchez then failed to elevate a fastball in a fastball count, Napoli swung from the heels, and the result—a 460-foot home run to dead center—set an inauspicious tone for Sanchez’s outing.
All told, considering his diminished stuff, Sanchez battled well. He would give up just three more runs after Napoli’s solo shot, keeping the Tigers within range. The Red Sox went on to win, 4-3, and take a 3-2 series lead back to Fenway Park for Saturday’s Game Six, but the Tigers threatened that lead, shrank it from 4-0 in the fifth with single runs in each of the fifth, sixth and seventh frames.
The bottom of the Red Sox lineup did the bulk of the damage. Jacoby Ellsbury, Shane Victorino, Dustin pedroia and David Ortiz only reached base five times in 19 plate appearances, without an extra-base hit or a run scored. That’s one way Boston can beat you, though: Their offensive depth is unparalleled. Xander Bogaerts got the start over Will Middlebrooks at third base, and turned in a double and a walk. David Ross, catching Lester for the second time this series, added two hits, including a double. Two non-regulars accounted for three hits, an RBI, a run and a walk, and none of it surprised fans in the know. Boston is just that good.
Had the Tigers won, this article would have begun with some gushing about Jose Iglesias. He’s been one of the breakthrough talents of the postseason, the young player who always seems to make his name starting in October. Bogaerts is on that path, himself, but it’s Iglesias who has caught the eyes of fans who treasure baseball’s nuance.
David Ortiz hit a flare to left-center field in the top of the third inning. Iglesias had been playing the usual shift against Ortiz, well over to the right side of second base. He began tracking the ball, sprinting over, but it looked like a clean, if lazy, single. Right up until Iglesias caught it, bursting into FOX’s frame at the last moment.
The ground he covered to make the play is thoroughly impressive. That he read the ball off the bat well enough to know he could get there, and that it would be his play, might be even more so. The thing that had me giddy, though, was the glovework. As he got within shouting distance of the ball, and as it descended, he let his glove arm hang down to his side. He kept the glove itse;f facing upward, ready for a basket catch, but he held it low and at his side. That allowed him, when the moment to do so finally came, to simply left and extend his arm to catch it. That mechanic gave him leeway, the chance to make the play at a variety of heights or angles, depending on just how close he could get before the ball was due to touch down. As it turned out, it was about a thigh-high catch, basket-style of course. The way he set it up proved Iglesias had practiced catches like that, prepared for them. That’s awesome.
Iglesias also had a night at the plate worth talking about. Recall that, in my breakdown of Game One, I noted how good Iglesias is at a scooping sort of swing that allows him to handle even good breaking pitches, things down at his calf and ankle level. I also recounted, though, that Jon Lester confidently attacked Iglesias with a buried slider in a key situation—and then another one.
Both of those things showed up again in Game 5. Iglesias came to bat for the first time in the second inning, with Austin jackson on first base and two outs. He worked a 2-2 count, including taking a pitch on which a passed ball let Jackson get into scoring position. He fouled off a pitch in the zone. Then he struck out on a slider Lester made sure got to the dirt. Inning over. Still, a solid at-bat.
When next Iglesias came to the plate, Jackson was on first base again, but the Red Sox had yet to record an out in the fifth inning. Iglesias took the first two pitches, then tried a push bunt. It would go down as a sacrifice, but he was bunting for a hit, and he almost had one. Lester fielded the ball about halfway between the pitcher’s mound, but not cleanly, and had to scoop-shovel the ball with his glove to nab Iglesias. Iglesias’s speed has surprised me during this series. I’d been given to know he was an average runner, no better, and that his sheer quickness let him overcome any lack of raw athleticism at shortstop.
It might be that he’s merely average, but he looks better than that to me, and if he is just average, he uses what he has exceptionally well. It ended up a blip on Game Four’s radar, but Iglesias scored without a throw, from first base, on a very hard-hit double to the left-field corner, fielded quickly and cleanly by the Red Sox, in the second inning of that game. He also took third base with ease on a Torii Hunter single to right later in Game 5, getting there with no outs, which allowed him to score on a double play.
Speaking of that sequence, the reason Iglesias was on first base in that seventh-inning situation was that he got to use that pretty little pitching-wedge swing on a Junichi Tazawa offering. He’d worked a 2-2 count and fouled off two two-strike pitches, and when Tazawa tried to finish him off, Iglesias singled softly to center field. The swing is one asset. His approach is another. Iglesias has done a fine job of working counts that encourage pitchers to throw the pitch he hits best, even if it means getting behind, and of stretching the at-bat until the right, slightly elevated breaking ball comes along.
He then worked a 3-2 count on Koji Uehara in the ninth inning, fouling off three two-strike pitches, and something pretty cool happened: Uehara kept throwing him fastballs. Iglesias has proved himself to the Sox well enough that the pitcher with perhaps baseball’s best splitter simply forsook it, and repeatedly put 89-mile-per-hour heat in the strike zone against him. Iglesias still struggles with a well-located fastball, regardless of velocity, and he did eventually pop out to end the game, but he’s impressing me with a lot of the little things he does to keep his offense viable while his defense builds his legend.
The game-ending pop-up, though, can help us segue into what might be the biggest story of this series: the dominance of the Red Sox’s high-leverage relievers. John Farrell trusts only three guys to get outs when it counts, and on Thursday night, those three—Craig Breslow, Tazawa and Uehara—answered the bell again.
Ideally, of course, when you have three short relievers you trust to protect a lead, the starter will give you six innings and make lining them up easy. That didn’t happen Thursday night. Jon lester got just 16 outs, leaving the Big Three to record 11 more. Tazawa gave up an inherited run in the sixth and one of hiw own in the seventh, on three total hits, but overall, the trio held firm. Farrell has ridden them hard, but their sturdiness is the reason the Red Sox are a win away from the World Series.
Last note: Boston forced the Tigers to throw 155 more pitches to beat them last night. Jose Veras threw 28 of those. Al Alburquerque threw 18, and has now appeared in all five contests. Bullpen fatigue in the playoffs is not a huge deal, given the spread-out eschedule, and is somewhat inevitable, because you have to chase every win within reach, forsaking other considerations. Still, I could see the weariness of the relief corps catching up to Detroit sometime in the next two games, if it goes that far.Next post: Jose Abreu is the Right Kind of Addition for the Chicago White Sox
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