Keys to the Series: Red Sox-Tigers
American League Championship Series
By general consensus, the Red Sox and Detroit Tigers are meeting in the American League Championship Series for all the right reasons: because they're the two best teams in the league. "This is how it should be,'' said a scout not affiliated with either club. "The two best teams (in the A.L.) playing for the right to go to the World Series.'' Not much separated the teams during the season. In seven head-to-head meetings, the Tigers won four and the Red Sox won three. Few would be surprised if the ALCS goes the distance, meaning seven more games between the two. For the Red Sox to be successful and win their first American League pennant since 2007, they'll need to accomplish a few specific things. Here, then, are five keys to the series.
1) Get quality starts from their rotation
The Tigers' principle strength lies with their starters. Max Scherzer will win the Cy Young Award. Justin Verlander has already won one. And Anibal Sanchez had the lowest ERA of any starter in the league. Even No. 4 starter Doug Fister handcuffed the Red Sox on Labor Day. To beat the Tigers, then, the Red Sox starters have to be every bit as good -- or nearly so -- as their Detroit countertparts. The Boston bullpen was superb in the ALDS against Tampa, allowing just two runs in 11 innings. In the clinching Game 4, Boston relievers chipped in with 3 1/3 innings of scoreless relief. But this series is longer, and the Tigers are a much stronger offensive team than are the Rays. If Sox starters don't routinely carry the team into the seventh inning or beyond, the bullpen's workload may prove too much. Jon Lester, Clay Buchholz, John Lackey and Jake Peavy may not have the numbers of Scherzer and Co and may not rack up similar strikeout totals. But they've shown themselves capable of shutting down quality lineups. They'll need to do that for the next week or so to give the Sox a chance of advancing to the World Series.
2) Maintain their aggressiveness on the bases
Another edge that the Tigers have over the Rays: post-season experience. This is the third straight year that the Tigers have made it to the ALCS, so their players are not about to wilt under the spotlight. It's unlikely that the Tigers will make the sort of mental and physical blunders the Rays made (four runs on passed balls and wild pitches; two overthrows from the second baseman), but that's not to say the Red Sox can't put some pressure on a veteran team, too. The Sox pushed the issue in Game 4, scoring two runs in the seventh without getting the ball out of the infield. Aggressive baserunning helped, as Jacoby Ellsbury stole a base, took third on a wild pitch and scored on a routine grounder to short. Boston's stretch of 45 successful steals in a row came to a halt when Daniel Nava was gunned down at second as part of a botched hit-and-run, but that doesn't mean the Sox should curtail their running ways. Catcher Alex Avila threw out only 17 percent of opposing base stealers and some of the Detroit starters aren't quick to the plate. That should present opportunities for the Sox' best base stealers (Ellsbury, Shane Victorino). But it's just as critical for the Sox to continue going first-to-third when the chance presents itself.
3) Don't pitch inside to Miguel Cabrera
When healthy, Cabrera is the game's best -- and smartest -- hitter. But as anyone who's watched him in the last few weeks can determine, he's far from healthy. Cabrera can't so much as jog without revealing a significant limp, as he deals with some hybrid injury involving a groin, hamstring and perhaps a sports hernia. The impact? Cabrera isn't himself at the plate. He's swinging only with his upper half, using his arms, but not generating extra torque through his hips and lower half. That means that Cabrera can't drive the outside pitch to right-center and right, the way he does when he's healthy. He simply doesn't have the core strength to hit those pitches hard. The Oakland A's seemed well aware of this and pitched Cabrera accordingly. That is, until the deciding Game 5 when Oakland starter Sonny Gray got a pitch up and in to Cabrera, who hammered it out to left for a two-run homer. Cabrera can do that at Fenway, too. That's why it's important to keep the ball away and take advantage of the slugger's physical limitations.
4) Opt for quality over quantity against the Detroit starters
Simply put, the Sox have to apply the same approach they used with David Price against Scherzer, Verlander et al. When the Sox beat up Price for seven runs in Game 2 of the ALDS, they had to become a little more aggressive in their approach at the plate. Unlike lesser starters, they couldn't exhibit their usual patience and hope to run up Price's pitch count because Price has such command, that he would get ahead of each hitter and dicate each at-bat. Insead, somewhat counter-intuitively, they concentrated on swinging only at good pitches, regardless of when they came during a given at-bat. "We swung at strikes,'' recalled catcher David Ross of his team's game plan. They have to do the same, particularly against Scherzer and Verlander, both of whom exhibit similar command. Both pitchers have demonstrated the ability to maintain their stuff late into games, well past the 100-pitch count. Verlander has often hit triple digits with his fastball in the eighth and ninth innings. Waiting them out won't work. Instead, the Red Sox have to pick and choose.
5) Keep it clean in the field
The Red Sox didn't commit a single error in the four games of the ALDS, a remarkable feat, given the stress of the games and the closeness of the final two games in particular. During the season, the Red Sox were the second most efficient defensive team in the league, meaning they did a superb job in converting chances into outs. That has to continue in the ALCS, since giving the Tigers' powerful lineup extra outs -- and thus, extra chances -- could be disastrous. Defensive positioning will be critical. The Sox shift (the Tigers don't) in accordance with their voluminous scouting reports, hoping to take away hits. But it's also critical that they successfully turn double plays, execute relays, and limit stolen bases. In other words, a repeat of their defensive play in the Division Series.