Detroit must contain Napoli, slow Boston's running game, make Miggy's job easier
BOSTON -- Though the two teams battled to the wire for the 1967 American League pennant, the Tigers have never faced the Red Sox in the postseason before now. They still have plenty of history, including three games at Fenway Park just last month.
For two games, they had two postseason-style, low-scoring games, Detroit's pitchers adeptly maneuvering their way through Boston's patient but potent lineup. Then they had a 20-4 loss on their way out of town. Even in that game, 15 of those runs scored from the sixth inning on after Rick Porcello struggled to locate pitchers to Boston left-handed hitters.
Other than that game, Tigers pitching held the Red Sox to two runs on 12 hits over 17 innings. The Tigers gave up seven walks, but struck out 15. It was vastly different than the four-game slugfest series put on in June in Detroit.
If the Tigers are going to get through this AL Championship Series and return to the World Series, they're going to need more of those low-scoring games. It could be a tougher task than they faced holding down Oakland, simply because of the different ways Boston's offense can put up runs.
"One of the reasons that the Red Sox are really good is they foul a lot of pitches off," manager Jim Leyland said. "And that's the problem. It's not taking the pitches, it's that they foul off good pitches. They don't put them in play. They hit them foul. If they put them in play, that's a good thing. They can foul off tough pitches, which extends the pitch count. That's what gets the pitch count up, not working the pitcher.
"They're so good because they're experienced hitters, veteran hitters, and they can foul tough pitches off, and that's what extends the pitch count."
Said Red Sox manager John Farrell: "We have hitters that have a long track record of working deep counts and grinding out at-bats. That will be a key for us this series as it has been all year."
Here's a look at three keys for the Tigers to get past Boston, both from the pitching side and with run support:
1. Don't let Mike Napoli get going
The last time the Tigers saw Napoli in the postseason, he was a sparkplug for the Rangers, scoring six runs in as many games in the 2011 ALCS. He wasn't a slugger in their set, managing just seven singles, but he set up the hitters behind him. His ensuing experience with Detroit pitching follows much of the same track, going 15-for-55 with three home runs, four RBIs and seven runs scored over the past two years.
The Red Sox advanced out of the AL Division Series despite his 2-for-13 series. If he heats up against the Tigers, even if they keep him in the park, their task of containing this Boston offense becomes much tougher.
2. Contain the running game
It was a key for the Tigers in the ALDS, and it's no less important now. Coco Crisp went 7-for-18 with three walks for the A's in the previous round, but he only attempted one stolen base. Three extra-base hits in that bunch likely helped temper that aggressiveness, but not entirely. It ended up being the only steal the A's -- 11th in the AL in steals in the regular season -- tried in the series.
The Red Sox, by contrast, ranked third in the league with 123 stolen bases, and were caught just 19 times. Most of that comes from Jacoby Ellsbury.
The Tigers have had a glaring problem holding down opponents on the bases this year, but they've tempered it a bit over the last several weeks with a renewed focus. Pitchers have been trying to vary their pickoff moves. Justin Verlander brought back the quicker throw to first he had all but abandoned in recent years because so few opponents reached base against him with a chance to do much damage. Max Scherzer has been historically solid.
With that help, the Tigers ended up tied for the Major League lead with 18 pickoffs in the regular season.
"We'll have a plan," Leyland said. "We'll try to watch it close. We'll try to contain them. It's not going to be a perfect deal. But you know, I don't know how much that will be a factor. I know they push a little bit more than the Oakland club, to be honest with you. It's a great point, just an extra thing you have to be aware of. We'll be prepared for that."
3. Make RBIs easier for Miggy
As encouraging as Miguel Cabrera's home run looked in Game 5, a well-struck shot he pulled deep to left, the round-tripper has been a rarity in his hitting since late August. His other four hits in the series were singles, and not simply because of his limited speed.
If the Tigers need Cabrera to go deep a few more times, they might be in trouble. If, on the other hand, they can make his singles good enough for RBIs, they could give their pitchers some much needed support. The way Austin Jackson and Torii Hunter can run, it should be as simple as getting them on base.
That, however, was a challenge in the ALDS. Jackson went 2-for-20 with 13 strikeouts against the A's. Hunter, battling a sore left shoulder for the final few games of the series, went 3-for-19 with six strikeouts. Somehow, they have to work at-bats to get on base and in position to make Cabrera's job easier.