DETROIT — After two games of the American League Championship Series, what have we learned about both teams?
The Tigers . . .
They are slow, a collection of base-cloggers, albeit ones with other talents. With Miguel Cabrera, Prince Fielder, Victor Martinez, and Jhonny Peralta, it takes an eternity and extra hits to score a run, unless they’re hitting home runs or doubles. And, oh yeah, they can do that, too.
The Tigers have had difficulty going first to third, with pianos affixed to the backs of their runners. Cabrera, who has leg issues, can’t even think about stretching a single into a double when the opportunity presents itself. The Tigers can’t think about taking a chance to advance on a wild pitch for fear they might not get there.
How about those bullpen issues? The Tigers did OK in picking up Anibal Sanchez’s no-hitter after six, but in Game 2 the worm turned, especially in the eighth inning when Jim Leyland’s wheels may have been turning too fast.
There was lefty Drew Smyly walking Jacoby Ellsbury, and Joaquin Benoit giving up a grand slam to David Ortiz. There were too many matchups. Al Alburquerque has thrown the ball about as well as any Tigers reliever, yet he was taken out of the game for Smyly after facing two batters. And Smyly, who is projected as a future starter, should be able to stay around longer than one batter (granted, he walked Ellsbury).
The day after the grand slam, Leyland issued the all-timer that it was on him because, “I made the mistake by not reminding [Benoit] if you walk [Ortiz], it’s OK. He tried to attack him with a ball that was out of the strike zone and it was one of those changeups that didn’t go down and away. It just stayed there.”
And then there’s the subject of Phil Coke, who didn’t take part in the Division Series but was sent to instructional league to prepare to be on the roster so he could pitch against Ortiz and Ellsbury in key situations. But when the situation arose? Things might have gone better with Coke than Benoit.
“One night the bullpen was meticulous and the next night it wasn’t quite as good,” said Leyland. “That pretty much sums it up.”
Tigers starters have been excellent. We’re talking top-notch work between Sanchez’s six-inning no-hitter and 12 strikeouts and Max Scherzer’s magnificent performance through seven before his bullpen messed up the night.
And Justin Verlander is still to come.
“In my opinion, these are the two best teams in the American League,” Verlander said. “We’ve made it to this point. When we played each other in the regular season, it was a dogfight. At this point in the season, nobody is going to give in. Those guys battled. It was a heck of a ballgame.”
The other thing we know is that Leyland will sacrifice defense for offense. That’s why you’re seeing Peralta supplanting Jose Iglesias. Peralta is the hottest hitter on either team and Leyland is going to ride it. He mentioned on the off day that he’d go with Andy Dirks in left field in Game 3, which likely means Peralta is back at short.
The Red Sox . . .
We know this: So far their starting pitching has been inferior to the Tigers’, but that doesn’t mean it’s been bad. Clay Buchholz was disappointing in allowing five runs, but in Game 1 Jon Lester pitched well enough to win nine out of 10 times.
The Verlander-John Lackey matchup Tuesday afternoon favors Detroit, given the way Verlander has pitched over the last month. But Lackey feels he’s as good as he’s ever been, a year after Tommy John surgery.
What we know is the Red Sox bullpen is superior to Detroit’s.
To be able to bring in Craig Breslow, Junichi Tazawa, and Koji Uehara at the end of the game gives the Red Sox a huge advantage when their starters come out. The Red Sox exploited this in Game 2, when in relief of Buchholz, the pen pitched 3⅓ scoreless innings. Brandon Workman and Felix Doubront, the guys who pitch when the team is behind, held the status quo for Uehara.
So if the Sox’ “behind” relievers can pitch that well, it gives them a huge advantage when they’re able to rest their “ahead” relievers, Breslow and Tazawa, both of whom pitched effectively in Game 1.
Before Ortiz’s epic grand slam, the Red Sox offense continued to struggle. Let’s see how much of a boost this one home run gives the offense against Verlander.
The Red Sox go by matchups and numbers about as much as any team in baseball, but they do defy those numbers occasionally. There are times when John Farrell will play Jonny Gomes even against a tough righthander, as he did against Scherzer in Game 2, just because Gomes gives you the intangibles, the feel for the moment.
That said, it’s difficult not to have Daniel Nava’s at-bats in the lineup. In Game 2, Farrell benched Nava and Mike Napoli in favor of Gomes and Mike Carp. Gomes and Carp went a combined 1 for 7 with five strikeouts and a double play, though Gomes did have a big hit late in the game.
Farrell said Napoli would return to the lineup Tuesday afternoon (he has good numbers vs. Verlander). And, as we pointed out Monday, the reason they obtained him was for power at-bats at Fenway Park, yet he sat for most of Game 2.
But the thing the Red Sox continue to do better than any other team is turn the page.
When it looks as if things are at their worst, when they’re playing as poorly as they can, they rebound.
Eight times after being shut out this season (out of 11 in all), they won the next game. They never lost more than three consecutive games. They did that five times, and then would rebound as if nothing had happened.
That’s what they did in Game 2. Ninety-nine percent of America watching the game probably gave the Red Sox no chance of winning a game they were trailing late, 5-0, with the way Scherzer was pitching. But as soon as the Red Sox got one run off him and then got a shot at the Tigers bullpen, all things were possible.
And so with Ortiz’s swift swing, he has changed the momentum, the outlook of this series. Instead of being down, 0-2, and facing Verlander, the Sox have it all tied up. They face a pitcher they have beaten in the past and they have no fear.
That’s what we’ve learned in the first two games.