DETROIT — Ninety-seven wins begat a relatively easy first round against the Tampa Bay Tomato Cans, which begat five bombastic battles against the estimable-but-slowly-crumbling Detroit Tigers.
And now the 2013 Red Sox are coming home to win the American League pennant on the green, green grass of Fenway.
The Sox put themselves in position to capture the flag by beating the Tigers, 4-3, in another grueling, midnight-hour carnival ride at Comerica Park on Thursday. The stunning surge, which started with Big Papi’s grand slam at Fenway on Sunday, carried over into Motown, where the Sons of David (Ortiz) won two of three thrillers. Four of the five games of this ALCS have been decided by one run.
So now the Sox have two cracks at it. All they have to do is beat the 2013 American League Cy Young (Max Scherzer) Saturday, or the 2011 AL Cy Young/MVP (Justin Verlander) Sunday.
“We’ve got two very good pitchers that are going against us,’’ said Sox manager John Farrell. “Once we get to Saturday, we’ll be focused in on the task at hand . . . This is a very focused group. Our guys are well aware of where we are, but the beauty of them is to not get ahead of themselves.’’
“We’ve got to win one game,’’ said Tigers manager Jim Leyland. “That’s obvious . . . These have been good games and so far they’ve got the best of us.’’
Game 6 will start at 4:37 p.m. Saturday if the Dodgers win Friday night. If the Dodgers are eliminated by the Cardinals, the Sox and Tigers will have to wait until 8:07 p.m. Go Dodgers. There’s plenty of October history involving the Red Sox and Cardinals, but the world will be a better place if we can have a Fall Classic featuring Boston vs. LA, Larry Lucchino vs. Magic Johnson, and Fenway fans vs. Adrian Gonzalez and Carl Crawford. Frank McCourt can make ceremonial first tosses on both coasts.
If you haven’t yet hopped on Boston’s Bearded Bandwagon, this might be the time. In the wake of the 2011 and 2012 disasters, there’s been some reluctance to embrace this worthy local nine. No more. Ortiz’s majestic moonshot changed everything, and now the Red Sox are on the threshold of a trip to the World Series for the third time in the Henry Administration, and the 11th time since the Boston Americans thrashed the Pittsburgh Pirates in the eighth and deciding game of the first Fall Classic played at the old Huntington Grounds in 1903.
There was nothing easy about Game 5. Jon Lester was marginally better than Anibal Sanchez in their rematch of Game 1 (Sanchez no-hit Boston for six innings in a 1-0 win), but both starters struggled. Sanchez was boxed around for nine hits and four runs (three earned), while Lester battled through 5⅓ innings, surrendering seven hits and three walks but only a pair of runs before he turned the ball over to Boston’s indomitable bullpen.
Detroit stumbled throughout. With two on and two out in the first, wounded Miguel Cabrera (groin, abdomen, name it) foolishly tried to score from second on a single to left by cheatin’ Jhonny Peralta. After third base coach Tom Brookens signaled “go”, then “stop,’’ Cabrera was easily thrown out by Jonny Gomes, but not without resistance. The Tiger MVP crashed into David Ross, Urlacher-style, but Ross held on to the ball and then held it aloft for everyone’s inspection.
“[Brookens] probably stopped him too late,’’ said Leyland. “With Miggy, you’ve got to stop him. It was one of those unfortunate things.’’
The Sox broke it open with three runs in the second — an inning that also featured a home-plate collision. Mike Napoli led off with a monstrous homer to center. The 460-foot blast was followed by an error by Cabrera, a Stephen Drew strikeout, and back-to-back doubles by Xander Bogaerts and David Ross. After Jacoby Ellsbury’s infield hit made it 3-0, Ross blasted into Tigers Alex Avila on a tag-out at the dish. Avila later left the game.
The Sox plated the eventual winning run in the third when Napoli scored on a wild pitch by Sanchez. A wild pitch while Sanchez was pitching to the slumping Drew with a man on third and two outs.
Cabrera cut it to 4-1 with an single in the fifth, but the Tigers’ rally ended as so many have . . . on a weak grounder to second by the stunningly useless Prince Fielder. Brayan Pena’s sixth-inning single cut the margin to 4-2 as the managers turned to their bullpens.
Comerica came to life when the Tigers put runners on first and third with nobody out in the seventh against Junichi Tazawa, but Cabrera killed the rally with yet another double-play grounder. The DP brought the Tigers to within a run (4-3), but took the air out of the ballpark.
“We had a shot,’’ said Leyland. “We just couldn’t get over the hump.’’
Koji Uehara came on for the five-out save, needed nine pitches to fan Peralta, then cruised. He popped up Jose Iglesias (who was everywhere) on a 3-2 pitch for the final out. It took a tidy 3 hours and 47 minutes to complete nine innings, and the game ended six minutes before midnight.
Get used to it. More late nights are ahead. Lester is on schedule to pitch Game 1 of the World Series Wednesday night at Fenway against the Cardinals or Dodgers.
All the Sox have to do is beat Scherzer or Verlander. At Fenway. This weekend.