DETROIT — Decisions, decisions. That’s what it’s all about it, isn’t it?
Pushing the right buttons. Or pushing as few of the wrong buttons as possible.
Twitter was blowing up when Red Sox manager John Farrell decided to take John Lackey out of Tuesday’s Game 3 of the American League Championship Series with two out and one on in the seventh inning of a 1-0 game. Yours truly tweeted, “Not sure this is the right thing here.”
But it was the right thing, even though Lackey might have pitched a brilliant rest of the seventh and a brilliant eighth. The way he was going, he probably could have shut down the Tigers for 12 innings.
“We thought that John had thrown his best pitches,” pitching coach Juan Nieves said. “We have complete faith in our bullpen.”
Lackey has always given Farrell some pushback, as he did Tuesday when he uttered, “You got be [expletive] me,” as the manager came out to take the ball. It seemed for a second maybe Farrell was changing his mind, but then the arm went up and Lackey was gone in favor of Craig Breslow.
“I’d rather him come off arguing than come off with his head hanging,” Farrell said. “That means we’re probably on the reverse side of the scoreboard.”
Lackey didn’t like being taken out of a 1-0 game. He might have been pitching the best game of his life. He had command of his fastball, of all of his pitches. There was plenty of velocity on his fastball, which reached 96 miles per hour.
“I wasn’t quite ready to come out at that moment,’’ said Lackey. “Bres has had a great year for us and had a great last series. We won the game. That’s really all that matters.”
Breslow walked Alex Avila to put runners at first and second, but he got Omar Infante to ground into a forceout to end the inning. Lackey stayed around the dugout to watch Breslow and when Breslow did the job he stopped Breslow and told him good job.
Red Sox players all found themselves managing the game on their own, but while there was a little surprise at Lackey coming out, they trust Farrell’s decision-making.
“I don’t think anybody ever accepts it, but that’s the manager’s decision,” said starter Jon Lester, who lost a 1-0 Game 1. “There’s nothing you can do about that. If the manager comes out to take him out and he’s happy about it, that’s not the guy we want out there on the mound. Get back on the bench to cheer. We don’t get paid to decide when we’re done. If we did, we’d probably go too far.”
And if the bullpen had blown it, we’d say it was the wrong decision.
Breslow said he always manages the game in his head because he wants to be able to predict when he might enter the game.
“Anybody in the bullpen is trying to think along with the manager so you can identify the situation where you’re possibly going to come into the game,” said Breslow. “Typically you can look at the lineup and identify the part of the lineup that you slot in if the game plays out predictably. At the same time, you need to stop worrying about how things will play out and just get ready if you’re called.”
When Breslow saw Farrell go out, he thought, “John might go out there and maybe let him get through it, but John felt the best move was to bring me in there to match up. It didn’t work out in that [first] at-bat but it did in the next one.”
Then came Twitter second-guess opportunity No. 2 in the eighth.
Breslow got Jose Iglesias to strike out and walked Austin Jackson. Koji Uehara and Junichi Tazawa were warming up. There was no margin for error in a 1-0 game.
Farrell brought in Tazawa, and Torii Hunter singled to right, sending Jackson to third.
The thinking of many was to use Uehara with Miguel Cabrera coming up. But Farrell stuck with Tazawa, who struck out the best hitter on the planet.
How did the best hitter on the planet not get the tying run in there? How did he strike out? What was the reason Farrell made the decision?
“We liked the matchup with power against Cabrera,” he said. “Cabrera has had good success against Koji in the past, hit a couple of balls out of the ballpark against him. And particularly after the base hit the other way by Torii Hunter to put them at first and third, we felt power was the best way to go. Whether [Tazawa] climbed the ladder away from him late or just stayed hard with him, it was a pivotal moment.
“You’re getting the best guy in baseball at the plate [and we are] trying to preserve a one-run lead. And that was a swing moment for sure.”
Farrell obviously knows his pitchers — their strengths and weaknesses and how each matches up against each hitter. Most managers know this, but during the course of the season it doesn’t always work out that well. Farrell’s moves usually have been solid when it comes to his pitchers, and obviously Nieves has a lot to do with this.
“It’s all about stuff,” Nieves said. “Tazawa has great stuff and we loved the matchup with Cabrera right there.” Uehara came on to strike out Prince Fielder. Decisions, decisions.
As much as we thought Farrell erred in not having Mike Napoli in the lineup in Game 2, he was correct having him in the middle of the lineup in Game 3. Napoli’s numbers were decent against Verlander and not so good vs. Max Scherzer, but Napoli has been a huge factor in the postseason before (2011 with Texas) and he can do what he did Tuesday — hit a home run to win the game even after striking out in his first two at-bats.
Napoli had been in a funk, so one can see the need to sit him against pitchers he has little chance against. But the slugger has the ability to win a game with one swing. That’s what he did Tuesday.
Not everything Farrell has done has been perfect. He continued to leave Daniel Nava out of the lineup and keep Jonny Gomes in. Gomes entered 0 for 9 against Verlander, and although he did manage a single in the fifth, the first hit off Verlander, he also struck out twice.
It’s not always about numbers. Farrell has shown he can go by the data and also go by a hunch. But Tuesday he pushed the right buttons and the Red Sox beat Verlander, 1-0, to take a 2-1 lead in one of the most interesting ALCS’s in quite some time.
Nick Cafardo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.