Big Papi did what Big Papi is supposed to do.
He saved the game. He saved his team’s hide.
Sunday night’s Game 2 at Fenway was heading down a horrible path for the Red Sox. Max Scherzer was leading the Tigers to a 2-0 advantage in the ALCS. One night after getting one-hit, the Sox were exhibiting an impotent offense again, before David Ortiz said “no mas!”
The Sox were trailing, 5-1, with two out in the eighth inning. The Big Man pounced on Joaquin Benoit’s first pitch — a changeup — and hit it to deep right field. Torii Hunter tried to make a leaping grab at the wall but fell into the Boston bullpen, just missing the catch of the century.
“That pitch was hittable,” Ortiz said. “I know he’s not gonna throw me a fastball there. He’s got a good split, but that pitch was hittable and I got a good swing on it.”
The result was a tie game, and one inning later the Red Sox walked off with a 6-5 victory in a game they had absolutely no business of winning.
“Going back to Detroit 1-1 instead of 2-0 and Tuesday against [Justin] Verlander, I think you’re gonna see guys get better at-bats,” said Ortiz. “They have outstanding pitching. We are the kind of team where we try to take advantage of mistakes. They showed so much dominance for 14 or 15 straight innings. We played them seven times in the season, but they had a totally different approach the past couple of days. It’s up to us to make adjustments.”
For his part, Ortiz said, “I felt I was swinging at bad pitches and jumping a little bit. Sometimes it can go against you.
“We pretty much needed that momentum going. I just tried not to do too much. I tried to put a good swing on the ball. We’ve been struggling putting a good swing on the ball. They have done a good job keeping us from getting the barrel down.”
Who knows what residual effect Sunday night’s turn of events will have on the remainder of the series. Jim Leyland tried to get the right matchups for his relievers, and he left himself with Benoit vs. Ortiz. According to Sox manager John Farrell, Ortiz had been studying Benoit on video all day.
Ortiz knew there would come a time when he’d have to face Benoit in a big situation.
“I watch everybody,” Ortiz said. “I watch every single pitcher so when it comes time to go against me I know how he’s going to approach me. You have to work hard on that. He’s got good stuff.”
Before this series began, Leyland said his goal was to find a way to offset Boston’s tough lefthanded hitters using four righthanded starters. Really there was no scientific formula. Both Game 1 starter AnibalSanchez and Scherzer challenged Ortiz and for the most part were successful.
Leyland even had lefthanded reliever Phil Coke, who was not on the Tigers’ Division Series roster, working out in Lakeland, Fla., to get ready for the ALCS because he wanted another option against Boston’s lefty hitters, mainly Ortiz.
But in the eighth inning Sunday, with the Tigers holding a four-run lead after Scherzer had given them seven mostly unhittable innings, Ortiz came up with the bases loaded and Leyland brought in Benoit. One pitch, tie game.
While we all knew that pitching would tell the story of this ALCS, we didn’t know how dominating the Tigers could be against a Red Sox lineup that showed so much diversity in the Division Series against Tampa Bay and two tough pitchers in David Price and Matt Moore.
In that series, the Sox used speed at the top of the order, power, and good pitching and defense to put the pressure on the Rays. They hadn’t been able to apply the same game plan against the Tigers because of Detroit’s starters.
It was assumed the Tigers’ rotation would be out of whack because Sanchez — not Scherzer or Verlander — would start Game 1, and that Boston would have the advantage in lining up its starters how it wanted. Wrong.
Sanchez may be the Tigers’ No. 3 starter but he led the league with a 2.57 ERA. His deceptive (almost Luis Tiant-esque) motion and his ability to throw his fastball at different speeds to go with an excellent changeup really kept Boston’s hitters off balance.
Sanchez, according to major league scouts we asked, was able to change the eye level on his pitches, and when a pitcher can do that, he has a distinct advantage over the batter.
Scherzer was simply nasty, throwing 97-mile-per-hour lasers at the knees and in perfect places, making it almost impossible to get a good swing against him and square up pitches.
Once Shane Victorino got the first hit off Scherzer in the sixth inning and was driven in by Dustin Pedroia’s double off the wall, it seemed as if the tide was turning just a little. And then it turned all the way against the Tigers’ bullpen.
One American League scout we spoke to during the game thought the Sox’ grind-it-out approach likely backfired because Scherzer is a strike-thrower. He thought the Sox needed to be more aggressive earlier in the count and not let Scherzer get into a pitcher’s count.
“Scherzer’s sheer power never allowed the Red Sox’ hitters into any type of comfortable rhythm,” said one National League East scout. “He spotted his fastball perfectly. Honestly, his stuff was so good tonight that no lineup on the face of this earth could have done much with it. You can talk about different approaches and all that, but the bottom line is he’s just sawing your bat off. You can see it in the reactions of Red Sox hitters. That’s usually a real confident bunch of guys, but they kind of knew they had no chance.”
A third scout from the NL was critical of Boston’s lineup — particularly the inclusion of Mike Carp and Jonny Gomes over Daniel Nava and Mike Napoli.
“I just think you go with your [regular] lineup. Mike Napoli gives you the best chance to do something productive. I don’t care what his stats are against Scherzer. Think of it this way — for me, Scherzer’s best pitch is his change and the Red Sox are using Carp [two strikeouts and a double-play grounder]. Go with your best.”
Eventually, it did come down to Boston’s best.
Will Middlebrooks got a big double with one out in the eighth. Jacoby Ellsbury drew a huge walk. Pedroia hit a hard single to right.
And then Big Papi, the 2004 ALCS MVP, did what Big Papi does. He hit his 15th postseason home run, which gave him 54 postseason RBIs.
And he just may have saved the Red Sox’ season.Nick Cafardo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @nickcafardo.