On the arms: Hits hard to come by in ALCS
Big Papi's monumental slam aside, pitchers dominating on both sides
BOSTON -- The right-field bullpen at Fenway Park was vacant as the sun faded from view on Friday, but in your mind's eye, it was easy to flick on the lights and call back the images from when we last saw the American League Championship Series underway here.
There's David Ortiz pouncing on a Game 2 changeup, Torii Hunter's legs disappearing over the wall, and Boston police officer Steve Horgan raising his arms in a triumphant "V." Ortiz owns one of the most indelible blows of the month, and yet he has just one other hit to his name in this pitching-rich ALCS.
"This is the playoffs. Everyone brings their best," Ortiz said. "The way they've been pitching is a whole totally different game. They're taking things to another level, which is what you're supposed to do in the playoffs."
Game 5 marked the first ALCS contest in which Detroit didn't rack up a double-digit strikeout total against Boston. That shouldn't be shocking, considering how the Tigers set a big league record with 1,428 strikeouts this season; it's been part of their bread and butter all year long.
"Anytime you can generate an out without the ball being put in play, there's nothing that can be done in those situations," said Tigers right-hander Max Scherzer, who draws the starting assignment for Saturday's Game 6 (8 p.m. ET on FOX). "That's something as a staff we're pretty good at, generating swings and misses."
Scherzer said the Tigers' key is having pitchers who can lean on quality offspeed pitches, and it was not a stretch when Red Sox manager John Farrell said that his team has been spending the last week-plus staring down some of the best pitching the league has to offer.
"The biggest thing is just hitting their mistakes," Red Sox catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia said. "When they make mistakes over the plate, we can't let them get away with it. Those first three games, four games, they were spot on. They weren't missing their spots."
We've heard for years how good pitching beats good hitting, which is kind of baseball's version of that "rock beats scissor" game we learned in the back of the school bus. And it's true: in general terms, scoring tends to grow scarcer in October as the balance tilts more strongly toward the men on the mound.
"If they throw a mistake, I hit it," explains the Tigers' Prince Fielder, who is 4-for-19 (.211) in the ALCS. "If not, I won't. It's that simple."
Regular-season scoring in the big leagues was at its lowest level since 1992, at 4.17 runs per team per game. That takes a further dip in the playoffs, where the tomato cans of inexperienced youngsters and middling relievers vanish because scheduling permits teams to keep the ball in the hands of their best.
"I think it's harder to be a hitter in the postseason than a pitcher," said former big leaguer Jack Morris, who pitched in three World Series with the Tigers, Twins and Blue Jays. "I think pitchers have the ability, the adrenaline rush, and the focus becomes a little easier for pitchers.
"Hitters, you know -- let's face it, the good ones capitalize all year long on pitchers' mistakes. They rarely hit the good pitchers when the good pitchers are on. And it seems in the postseason they're all on."
Carrying a 3-2 series lead into Saturday's Game 6, the Red Sox need not apologize for their production, but it didn't look all that promising when they'd fanned 32 times in the first two games -- 25 of those punchouts coming with Anibal Sanchez and Scherzer on the mound.
"In the playoffs, pitching is going to dominate," Tigers catcher Alex Avila said. "At this time of the year, a good pitcher that knows how to pitch will be able to shut down a good offense."
There are also few secrets at this late stage. The teams still alive are among the best in the game at run prevention, and they know each other intimately thanks to intense scouting.
"I think from the get-go, we've done a really good job advancing teams," Red Sox bench coach Torey Lovullo said. "Our scouts have gotten together and talked things over internally, and then spit out a game plan. We've built up such a trust in them, and we ask nothing to change in the postseason."
The defensive shifts stealing singles on a nightly basis are a good example of how hit charts have made their presence felt, but Ortiz still gives the lion's share of the credit to the pitchers.
"Scouting has something to do with it, but scouting reports don't pitch out there," Ortiz said. "You listen to the scouting reports and then you have to execute, and they're executing perfectly fine."
And yet it isn't as easy as these pitchers have made it look. When Scherzer and Clay Buchholz return to the rubber Saturday, they'll know the game can turn on a single pitch, especially against a talented lineup just salivating for a mistake to crush.
"It's a mental challenge now. You know you're facing great lineups," Scherzer said. "I know Boston is a great lineup. You have to execute from pitch one all the way to your last pitch. And that's a challenge -- how many times you can do that."