Jacoby Ellsbury hit the ball fairly sharply, but turning a double play would have been nearly impossible. Jose Iglesias got to the ball just behind second base, but he never had it, not even for a moment. It would have been a tough, even remarkable play to get two outs. It would have been fairly impressive just to get one. The Detroit Tigers got none, though, and the bases filled to bursting.
That was the play on which, perhaps, the Boston Red Sox’s pennant-clinching win Saturday night turned. It certainly looked that way a batter later, when Shane Victorino unloaded the bases with a grand slam down the left-field line, erasing a 2-1 deficit, making the game 5-2 in favor of the American League East champions, seemingly snatching and sealing victory in a single motion. It’s not because Victorino homered, though, that that plate appearance captures so much of the crux of that contest.
Ellsbury was the guy who got on. His speed forced Iglesias to rush the play, which was a tough one anyway. That Ellsbury gets no statistical credit on that okay is appropriate, since Ellsbury has spent this month being systematically overlooked, despite being (fairly easily) the best player in baseball this postseason.
Even without the error counting in his favor, Ellsbury reached base 21 times in 45 plate appearances during Boston’s 10-game run to reach the World Series. He scored 10 runs, stole six bases in seven tries and added four extra-base hits. He reached base in nine of the 10 games, and reached at least twice in eight of 10. This is where the disparity in perceived value between driving in runs (with power) and setting up runs (with on-base skills) begins to do laps around the actual difference.
Ellsbury was facing Drew Smyly during that seventh-inning plate appearance Saturday night. That was the only batter Smyly faced. It was the second time in the series that Ellsbury had faced Smyly, and the third time Tigers manager Jim Leyland had brought in a lefty solely to face Ellsbury. When Iglesias couldn’t pick the ball up cleanly, Ellsbury reached first base for the third time in those three situations.
*Tim McCarver tried to make a big deal, on the FOX broadcast, about Leyland lifting Max Scherzer in favor of Smyly with Ellsbury due up. That doesn’t need to be a part of this conversation; McCarver is just a dinosaur. Scherzer had thrown 110 pitches, and was clearly losing it. He’d narrowly escaped the sixth inning with the lead, and the Red Sox went double, strikeout, walk against him to start the seventh. If he had stayed in, it would have marked the start of a fourth trip through the batting order, which never spells good things for a starting pitcher. Ellsbury has a large platoon split (over 200 points of OPS, and all his power comes against right-handers). Leyland didn’t earnthe benefit of any doubt with his bullpen management during the series, but this wasn’t one of his mistakes.
If Ellsbury getting the best of the lefty relievers was key to Boston’s offense, the key matchup with which the Sox beat the Tigers on the other side of the ball was Junichi Tazawa against Miguel Cabrera. On Saturday night, it was two on, two out, top of the seventh inning. Tazawa induced a groundout to shortstop. On Thursday night, in Game Five, he’d gotten a double play from Cabrera to help hold a thin lead. On Tuesday, in Game Three, he’d struck him out with runners on first and third in a 1-0 Boston win. I don’t know whether a healthy Cabrera changes those outcomes, but as it is, Junichi was John Farrell’s Giant Slayer in the late innings during the ALCS.
It wasn’t only Ellsbury and Tazawa. It never is, with this team. The performances of Craig Breslow and Koji Uehara helped ensure that the Tigers basically had six innings to score, or go home empty-handed. That triad of high-leverage relievers is what you need to survive October, and they stepped up.
The depth and tenacity of the lineup went a long way, too. Detroit’s starting pitching was and is the best in baseball, and the only way to beat them was always going to be to get those guys out of the game. The Red Sox did it, with the same torturously patient approach they used all season, forcing huge pitch counts, getting the aces off the mound, then scoring 11 runs on Tigers relievers.
Every Red Sox position player has at least tactical value, and most have multiple sources of value. There are no holes in the lineup (although slumps by Stephen Drew and Jarros Saltalamacchia created some), and even their bench is strong. This team scored four runs in an inning 25 times this season, and more than four 21 times. The reason is that they have power, but also tons of on-base talent. They just keep fighting off pitchers’ pitches, working counts and piling up base runners.
The starting rotation Boston has carried to the World Series is flat, but fine. There is no weakness to this team, and its strengths are stronger than any other team in baseball. They beat the Tigers because they got the best of two matchups between low-profile, high-leverage relievers and superstar-caliber position players; because they didn’t let the Tigers’ starting pitchers dominate the series; and because they can’t be exploited. They got the opportunity to beat the Tigers because they were, for six solid months and more, the best team in baseball.Next post: Brandon Phillips Trade Rumors Swirl, But Who Should Pursue Him?
Previous post: Cardinals Punch World Series Ticket with Relentless Contact