Commentary

No mistaking Red Sox's approach

Get through Verlander and into Tigers' bullpen, which couldn't cut it in Game 2

Updated: October 15, 2013, 2:40 AM ET
By Gordon Edes | ESPNBoston.com

DETROIT -- Some things should be so obvious that they don't need to be said. Sorry, Jim Leyland, as stand-up guys go, you're Cooperstown material, but do you really expect us to buy it's your fault that Joaquin Benoit gave up a grand slam to David Ortiz in Game 2 of the American League Championship Series because you forgot to remind him not to give Big Papi a good pitch to hit?

That's how the Detroit Tigers manager was trying to spin it Monday.

[+] EnlargeJonny Gomes
Rick Osentoski/USA TODAY SportsJonny Gomes on facing Justin Verlander: "You can't worry about pitch count. You have to worry about swinging."
"Last night, I made a mistake that I take full responsibility for," Leyland said at Comerica Park on Monday. "I should have just reminded [Benoit] that we didn't want Ortiz to really beat us. He tried to make a great pitch. He tried to get it low and away out of the strike zone, but he didn't get it there. We were going to try to get him to swing at a ball if we could. And I should have reminded him about that, and I did not."

Now, you could certainly pick apart some other things that Leyland did in the eighth inning Sunday night, when he went through four relievers playing matchup with Sox hitters, none of which worked out. But not telling Benoit to be careful with one of the game's greatest postseason hitters? If that Boston cop in the bullpen had heard that whopper, he'd have busted Leyland on perjury charges.

Give Leyland points for attempting to deflect the heat from his closer. But had John Farrell taken a similar tack Monday, the Red Sox manager would have been berating himself over the Sox not hitting either Anibal Sanchez and Max Scherzer because he forgot to tell them that the Tigers right-handers were really, really good.

Which leads us to one of those other baseball facts of life that doesn't really need to be stated. Even the highest-scoring team in the majors can be made to look helpless by great pitchers at the top of their game. The Red Sox became the first team in postseason history to be held hitless for five or more innings in consecutive games. They'd played 324 regular-season games at Fenway -- four full seasons' worth -- without once going the first five innings without a hit.

So how did it happen this past weekend?

"To tell you the truth," Jonny Gomes said, "this team is so deep, 1 to 9, I can't think of any other reason than to tip your cap to those pitchers. Those two games probably are the top two games I've ever seen pitched. Three-ball counts they didn't give in on. They were fine with walking guys. They lived and died on the edges."

And now comes Justin Verlander, who hasn't allowed an earned run in his past four starts, including two in the division series against Oakland.

"The work of Sanchez and Scherzer has been nothing short of spectacular," Farrell said Monday. "We feel like tomorrow's starter in Verlander is going to be a similar, if not a more difficult, challenge than what we faced already."

Here's the reality: The Red Sox played 51 games this season against a starting pitcher who finished the year with an earned run average of 4.00 or less. In 31 of those starts, the Sox scored two runs or fewer while the starter was in the game. In 21 of those games, the starter went seven innings or more, and 34 times the starter delivered a quality start (at least six innings, no more than three earned runs). In only 10 of those games did the starter go five innings or fewer.

The point of presenting all those numbers? While it's nice to think you can put up some runs against  Verlander, the way the Sox did against top-tier pitchers Matt Moore and David Price of the Tampa Bay Rays in the division series, don't count on it. For the Red Sox, the key to winning this season has been feasting on mediocre starting pitching and getting into the other team's bullpen, and the sooner the better.

The surprise for Farrell in Game 1 was not that Sanchez pitched as well as he did -- he led the league in ERA and had 202 strikeouts -- but that the Tigers' bullpen also pitched shutdown ball against the Sox.

"Every guy they brought in from the bullpen was mid- to upper 90s with a put-away breaking ball," Farrell said Sunday afternoon, "and when they had to, they executed. To me, that was the biggest thing. They showed more consistency to execute from guy to guy than maybe in the last six, eight, 10 weeks, based on our scouting reports."

[+] EnlargeJustin Verlander
AP Photo/Paul SancyaJustin Verlander, who has been on top of his game of late, gave up four runs and threw 112 pitches in five innings against the Red Sox on June 23.
The Tigers' bullpen bore a much greater resemblance to those scouting reports in Game 2. Will Middlebrooks started the decisive eighth-inning rally with a double into the left-field corner off Jose Veras. Jacoby Ellsbury laid off some tough pitches and drew a full-count walk from left-hander Drew Smyly. Right-hander Al Alburquerque struck out Shane Victorino, but then Dustin Pedroia lined a single to right to load the bases. Leyland then summoned Benoit. Ortiz swung at the first pitch he saw, a changeup that got too much of the plate, and drove it into the Red Sox's bullpen.

With that swing, the entire tenor of the series changed.

"Coming over here down two games," said Boston right-hander John Lackey, who will oppose Verlander in Game 3, "would have been tough."

The Sox faced Verlander once this season, back on June 23, and hustled him out of the game after five innings in which he allowed four runs and threw 112 pitches. But that was back when Verlander was still in his mortal phase, not yet having morphed into the vintage Verlander of recent weeks.

There's a flaw in any plan to try to run up the pitch count against Verlander again, said Gomes. He likely will be in Tuesday's lineup, it appears, after Farrell noted that "we can't fully … the intangibles that Jonny Gomes brings."

The flaw?

"Verlander has no problem throwing 130, 140 pitches," Gomes said. "He could throw 145 in nine and be out there tomorrow. He's that much of a horse. You can't worry about pitch count. You have to worry about swinging."

Mike Napoli, who will return to the Red Sox's lineup Tuesday after sitting against Scherzer for Game 2, said that while the Sox may have seen fewer hittable pitches this weekend than they typically would, they failed to take advantage of the ones they did see.

"It's not like we're going to change anything," he said. "Just try to square some balls up and get hits."

And get to the pen.

Gordon Edes

Red Sox reporter, ESPNBoston.com

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