Everything you need to know about Game One of the 2013 ALCS Saturday night, you can learn from the sequence of pitches Anibal Sanchez threw to Shane Victorino with an 0-2 count in the bottom of the third inning. Having gotten ahead, Sanchez could well have wasted one of his sharp but big-breaking curves, or tried to catch Victorino getting overeager by putting a changeup in the dirt. Instead, he threw to straight fastballs, elevated but (probably) within the strike zone. Victorino fouled both off, but it was clear they violated his expectations. He barely kept up with them. Then Sanchez threw a hard changeup on the inside corner, 88 miles per hour, and Victorino loudly swore as home-plate umpire Joe West rang him up.
The Boston Red Sox are an offense that defies domination. Up and down the order, they have guys who work the count and can crush mistakes. A deep bench insures them against platoon exploitation, and their mix of skills–power, baserunning, walks-drawing, contact–makes them terribly difficult to pick apart. They want to make you throw 160-plus pitches per game, and just wear you out. To their credit, they forced the Detroit Tigers to throw them 166 pitches on Saturday night.
To Detroit’s credit, though, they found the secret recipe for beating Boston: Have really, really good pitchers, and be extremely aggressive against the Red Sox batters.
That’s how Sanchez turned in six shutout innings, striking out 12 and walking six, but holding Boston without a hit. That’s how Al Alburquerque added a clean inning and two strikeouts, and how Jose Veras and Drew Smyly turned in a 1-2-3 eighth with two more punch outs. It’s also how Joaquin Benoit, despite allowing Boston’s first and only hit, despite having to throw 22 pitches, finished off the first shutout of the Sox at Fenway in October since the Chicago Cubs did it to them, in 1918.
Sanchez had everything working Saturday night. He got his curve up with surprising regularity, but as his outing wore on, it became increasingly clear that that was strategy, not a series of execution problems. He was using Boston’s selectivity and intensity against them. He also did a supernal job of subverting the batters’ expectations. Fastballs were only coming when changeups were the anticipated choice. Sanchez alone must have induced a dozen check swings from Red Sox batters, most of which were ruled to have been swings, and which proves their befuddlement. In the bottom of the fourth frame, with a 1-1 count on Mike Napoli, Sanchez executed a perfect changeup in the dirt, to get ahead 1-2. The next pitch drew a checked swing that first-base umpire Rob Drake ruled a strike, and Sanchez had his second whiff of Napoli. That 1-1 pitch just crawled inside Napoli’s head and ate his batting brain.
Max Scherzer gave an interview during the top of the fifth inning, from the dugout. When asked about the night Sanchez was having, he sounded downright reverent. He talked about how Sanchez could add and subtract velocity on each of his pitches in a way Scherzer couldn’t fathom, let alone emulate. He could move his fastball between 90 and 97 miles per hour, his change between 78 and 88, and so on. And it was dead-on. That touch, that ability to change a batter’s eye level and eliminate initial velocity as a predictor of the pitch leaving his hand, made him unhittable on Saturday night.
Jon Lester was only slightly less impressive. You could argue he was just as impressive; he just had a tougher matchup before him. Whereas the Red Sox are vulnerable only in that they strike out at one of the 10 highest rates in baseball, the Tigers are the league’s best contact-hitting offense. Lester got 19 outs, induced 10 groundouts and walked just a single batter (though he did hit two), but because he fanned just four, the Tigers ended up with six hits against him, and they pushed across the lone run that they’d need in a sixth inning that went: groundout, walk, hit batsman, fielder’s choice, single, groundout. They put 29 balls in play, and when you do that, the math says you usually end up with nine hits. The Tigers did.
I don’t think either manager made a terribly egregious error all night. That was one of the delightful things tinging this game, ensuring it will stand in my mind as a playoff classic for a long time. I did disagree, though, with letting Lester take the mound in the top of the sixth inning. The Tigers’ toughest outs (especially for Lester) were due, with Torii Hunter leading off, then Miguel Cabrera, Prince Fielder and Victor Martinez due. Behind them lurked the guy I would certainly have been prepared to keep away from Lester: Jhonny Peralta.
It’s not hard to see why John Farrell didn’t pull Lester. He doesn’t trust the lower half of his bullpen depth chart, at all. Saturday would turn out to be the third game of the playoffs, already, in which the only pitchers to appear were the starter, Junichi Tazawa, Craig Breslow and Koji Uehara. Other relievers have faced just 10 batters in five games, and four of those came in a mop-up inning from Ryan Dempster in Game 1 of the ALDS, a 12-2 Boston win.
Dempster was available to Farrell Saturday night. So, for that matter, was Jake Peavy, who’s tabbed for the start in Game Four. (That’s according to an MLB.com story.) I feel fairly strongly that Farrell should have gone to one of those two, or at least had them warming, as the sixth frame began, so that–in the worst-case scenario–they could come in to face Peralta. Farrell did none of that, though, and so Peralta batted with two on and two outs against Lester (having hit left-handed pitching to the tune of .352/.404/.560 this season), and singled to center field to score that single run.
Kudos to Farrell for understanding that in October, there is no room for getting guys work. High-leverage innings have to go to your best relievers, and there is hardly ever a low-leverage inning in the postseason. He erred when he became too rigid in his definition of a reliever. Although the six-to-nine out situation for which he might have envisioned using Peavy didn’t arise, an opportunity to use him (or Dempster, who was groomed for short relief even at the end of the regular season) did, and Farrell let it pass.
Still, that decision was defensible. So was the choice Jim Leyland made, to lift Peralta for a pinch-runner after a seventh-inning double, setting up a juggling of defensive personnel that required removing Miguel Cabrera. That, in turn, led to Don Kelly batting in Cabrera’s spot with runners on second and third base, with one out in the ninth inning. It was a chance to blow the game open, and it passed because Cabrera had been forced off the field, but given Cabrera’s current injury problems and the importance of the run Peralta represented in the seventh, Leyland did okay.
I’m out of coherence, but have a few more moments, vignettes from this game to share. Some have importance going forward; others are just opportunities to savor the game itself.
-On the first pitch Miguel Cabrera saw, he hit a slicing line drive down the right-field line. It went no more than 320 feet, but that actually would have been enough to make it a home run, thanks to the very short porch that is the right-field corner in Fenway Park, but it twisted just foul. It was a reminder both that Fenway, with its quirks and peculiarities, always makes playoff baseball even more volatile, thrilling and unpredictable than it already is; and that Cabrera, though limited both in the power he can generate with his lower half and in the rotation he can generate in his swing, is a very dangerous, extremely difficult-to-defend hitter.
He would single later in that at-bat, then ground out to second base, walk, score and fly out to right in his subsequent trips. The flyout was well-struck, too. He’s still clearly not 100 percent, especially afield, and is limited not only by what he can’t quite do at 100 percent offensively, but by Leyland’s need to get him off the field as defense becomes more important (or the perception that that is true begins to take over) late in games. No way does a healthy Miguel Cabrera get pulled, and miss that ninth-inning RBI chance.
-The weather affected play all night, although no one commented on it and the players weren’t visibly uncomfortable. Temperatures hung in the low 50s, and the wind blew gently but steadily in throughout the game. Several fly balls I thought spelled trouble died, instead, in the gloves of center and right fielders. They might not all have cleared the wall, but those balls got knocked down a bit by the wind. That the two teams combined to reach base 21 times is a testament to their offenses, which are as weatherproof as they can be.
-Omar Infante might be the under-the-radar guy to watch throughout the series. The Tigers second baseman got ahead of Lester 1-0 in his first plate appearance, and yanked the next pitch deep into the left-field seats, foul. His power, which has just materialized over the last two seasons, is an element of his game for which no one accounts, but which could prove important at a key moment later on. In pursuit of a lefty-lefty matchup, the Red Sox intentionally walked Infante in the eighth inning. It loaded the bases, and Alex Avila worked a 3-1 count before flying out to end the frame. That Infante even commanded enough respect to create that situation says a lot, though.
-Infante was also involved in a really interesting sequence in the fifth inning. He came to bat after Peralta had rocketed a leadoff double into the gap in left-center field, and promptly hit a sharp ground ball to first base. Normally, someone more impressed by outs than I am would have lauded Infante for his bat control, for pushing the ball to the right in an effort to get Peralta over to third base with one out.
Only Mike Napoli had other plans. Napoli had been playing in, anticipating (or at least attempting to deter) a bunt. He fielded the ball cleanly and quickly, and turned his former-catcher arm toward second. Peralta actually did a fine job reading the play and trying to get back to the bag, but no dice. Stephen Drew applied a swipe tag and Peralta was wiped out.
The next batter was Avila, who hit a liner of deceptive sharpness into right field. Shane Victorino kicked it (almost literally), sending the ball skittering back toward the infield and letting Infante reach third base with one out. Jose Iglesias then stepped to the plate.
-I’ll set this at-bat apart with its own bullet point, because it was exciting and impressive in every way. Lester got ahead 0-1 on Iglesias, a light-hitting shortstop who was a Red Sox as recently as late July. He then buried a slider in the dirt. Iglesias swung over the top, but the ball came in so hard and so short that it skipped 10 or 15 feet away from David Ross, the Boston catcher, to his right. He ran it down and the runners were unable to advance, but it had to be a heart-in-throat moment for Lester. Right?
Wrong. The story of this game was pitchers having thoroughly impressive self-confidence. Lester came back with exactly the same pitch, give or take six inches vertically. Iglesias went after it again, only this time, he adjusted and was able to loft a soft pop-up, foul and out of play. It was a tremendous moment: A pitcher refusing to be scared off from executing what he knew to be the best pitch. A batter making an adjustment to avoid a strikeout in a hugely important spot.
Lester showed respect for Iglesias by bringing his next offering up. Iglesias hit a two-hop grounder to Will Middlebrooks, the Red Sox third baseman, who had been playing about even with the third-base bag. Bad luck for Detroit. Infante broke for the plate, but had no chance. The tragedy is that he would have had no hope of beating Middlebrooks back to third, either. It was just a well-struck ball, hit to precisely the worst place on the diamond. Infante was tagged out at home plate, Austin Jackson flew out to right field, and the Tigers didn’t score.
-One last point related to the two above: Both of Iglesias’s two plate appearances thereafter also resolved themselves on secondary pitches down at his ankles. Lester hit him with an 0-2 slider in the seventh inning, then he took a 1-2 splitter from Uehara (whose splitter is virtually unhittable, especially down there) off his shoe tops for a clean single up the middle, leading off the ninth. He’s not much of a hitter in terms of power, or patience, or even bat speed, but he’s a terrific defensive shortstop, and if he can find ways to get his bat on those pitches all series, he’s going to be an impact player.
-This will be my last Jose Iglesias bullet of the post, I promise. It’s a good illustration of what I mean by ‘terrific’ on defense, is all. It came with two outs and runners on first and second, in the bottom of the second inning. Jacoby Ellsbury was up. Ellsbury is exceptionally fast: He stole 52 bases in 56 tries this season. Thinking Ellsbury might try to bunt to load the bases, and so as to be able to cover third base if necessary, Cabrera was playing way in at third, and hugging the foul line. Iglesias therefore played Ellsbury deep and shaded toward the hole.
Ellsbury then hit a weird one. It was the kind of ball players rarely hit, the sort of anomaly that really stands out when it happens in such a loaded situation. It was a firm but not straight line drive, about 10 feet to the left of second base. Iglesias had to move to his left, and charge it. The ball fell, forcing Iglesias to field it on a short hop, and while he did knock it down, he couldn’t quite grab it cleanly. Even among the few who could have gotten to that ball, I’m not sure how many would have gloved it without issue.
Iglesias regained it quickly, though, and took a stride to decide whether to race Ross to second base. Ultimately, he decided he couldn’t win that, so he threw on the run to Prince Fielder. For a terrifying moment, I thought it would be high, but Fielder caught it without problem, and it beat Ellsbury by a half-step.
It didn’t look all that pretty. Taking into account, though, the strange nature of the hit; the ground Iglesias had to make up as he chased it; the dilemma of how to get the ball under control and where to go with it; and the speed of the runner going down the line, it was a sterling effort.
-Shane Victorino had a bad night at the plate. I already recounted how Sanchez toyed with him in the third frame. Prior to that, though, he had fanned in the first–though he reached base when the ball went to the backstop. In his third trip to the plate, leading off the sixth, he had the good sense to test the Tigers defense with a bunt for a hit. Only instead of aiming that bunt at Cabrera, who is a terrible defensive third baseman on his best day and who looked genuinely afraid of a ball being hit his way all night on Saturday because of his hip and abdomen injuries, Victorino bunted hard and true to Prince Fielder at first base. It was a miserable effort, and unless he just accidentally pushed what was meant to be a drag bunt, it was also a bad idea.
-Victorino likely felt even worse, though, after seeing Jose Veras as the leadoff man in the eighth inning. If ever you wonder what is meant by the term ‘getting out on the front foot,’ watch Victorino (and Dustin Pedroia) face Veras. It seems that Veras’s mid-90s heat looks just like his high-70s curveball as it leaves his hand, because Victorino and Pedroia both lunged helplessly after tough pitches. Both would then try to reverse their forward motion, but without any luck whatsoever. Pitching backward worked on the Red Sox all night, but Veras might have been the cruelest practitioner. He got to two strikes with the breaking pitches, then threw the fastball by. Pedroia got frozen looking at strike three just that way.
-Despite Victorino’s empty at-bat leading off the sixth, the Red Sox put up a fight in that frame. Three walks loaded the bases, and as the inning unfolded, Anibal Sanchez noticeably lost steam. He crossed the 100, then the 110-pitch plateau as the inning wore on. Daniel Nava made perhaps the savviest pair of moves of the inning, stepping out twice to ensure Sanchez stayed out of rhythm. Nava became the third walk, bringing up Stephen Drew.
Sanchez struck him out. The rally died. It was a wild moment, with Sanchez bouncing off the mound with a spinning fist pump. If anyone tells you that that moment was the game’s final turning point, the one on the momentum of which it hinged, don’t believe them. If they say it never really felt like the Tigers would let it get away after that, scoff. It did. The Red Sox kept coming, kept pushing. But that was a huge out, and likely the most dramatic moment of the game.
-Benoit struck out Napoli looking to open the ninth. Things got harder after that, though. With a 1-2 count on him, Nava began fouling pitches off, and when he eventually singled on a floater to center field, the crowd went a bit wild. The tying run was now on base, and the Red Sox quickly inserted Quintin Berry (who’s yet to be caught stealing in the big leagues, albeit in fewer than 30 attempts) as a pinch-runner. Berry stayed put throughout Stephen Drew’s at-bat, which ended on a well-hit flyout to right field, though he could have run any time. Benoit had no good pick-off move, and was missing up and to Alex Avila’s glove side, which would make for a tough throw to second base.
Berry did take off and steal second while Xander Bogaerts was batting. Bogaerts is a 20-year-old rookie, the shortstop or third baseman of the future in Boston but right now a defensive sub. He’d come in to play third after pinch-hitter Mike Carp took Middlebrooks out of the lineup in the seventh.
Bogaerts didn’t approach the at-bat like a rookie, though. He worked a full count, about eight pitches, before a 96-mile-an-hour heater simply overwhelmed his young man’s swing, and he popped out to end the game. It’s not a Mike Trout moment, but Bogaerts has put together solid trips to the plate in October, and should have Farrell’s trust at this point if he’s needed to either take a start or pinch-hit earlier in a game.Next post: ALCS Game Two: Red Sox and Tigers Prove No Mistake Goes Unpunished in October
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