Commentary

Sox enter Game 5 half-full, half-empty

Lucky to be tied with Tigers, Boston better start hitting to have any ALCS hope

Updated: October 17, 2013, 9:14 AM ET
By Jackie MacMullan | ESPNBoston.com

DETROIT -- So here we are, knotted 2-2 in the American League Championship Series, yet it feels as though the Red Sox are losing their footing.

Like if something doesn't change soon, this one is going to slip away.

A 7-3 shellacking by the Detroit Tigers in Game 4 of the ALCS can have that effect on you, especially when yet another starter demonstrates total command of his pitches and thwarts a Boston lineup that has lost its muscle when it matters.

[+] EnlargeDavid Ortiz
AP Photo/Carlos OsorioLess than pleased after flying out to end Game 4, David Ortiz is hitting .067 in four ALCS games.

If you believe the Red Sox glass is half-full, you are grateful to be tied at two games apiece in the ALCS, because let's get real: Detroit's starting pitchers are filthy, McNasty and downright dirty -- every one of them.

The latest to demoralize a Boston team that was known in the regular season for its dangerous hitters was Doug Fister, the afterthought on the Tigers' staff who doesn't have Justin Verlander's Cy Young, Max Scherzer's 21 wins or Anibal Sanchez's no-hitter on his dance card, but who submitted a clutch performance at the most critical juncture of the season. Fister went six innings, scattered eight hits and gave up just one run.

On a night when Sox starter Jake Peavy wilted under the bright lights of his long-awaited Championship Series moment, Fister's performance highlighted the major difference in this series: lockdown starting pitching.

Asked if he is OK with his team's 2-2 standing in this series, slugger David Ortiz conceded, "I think so."

"Their pitchers, they are just taking it to another level," Ortiz said. "[Fister] pitched a game that was outstanding. It was impressive, very impressive. He was painting everything, and his breaking ball was better than I've ever seen.

"It's hard to play from behind when guys are pitching like that."

In fact, the only time the Red Sox have struck first in the scoring column in this series is in Game 3, when Mike Napoli's homer accounted for the only run of the game.

Sooner or later, Detroit's stellar starting pitching was bound to bite the Sox. Consider the two games the Tigers lost. Scherzer was crafty, dominant, brilliant, vexing ... (feel free to add your own superlative).

He had every right to leave the park with a game ball in his pocket and a stat sheet tucked under his arm with a "W" next to his name.

Ditto for Verlander in Game 3. His lone mistake -- a fastball over the plate that Napoli croaked -- would normally result in only collateral damage.

But Verlander was outdueled by John Lackey. Scherzer was cut down by his own bullpen (another reason, incidentally, to view the Red Sox glass as half-full).

In other words, Boston dodged a bullet in both of their victories. Conversely, the Tigers earned their two wins by pounding the Red Sox starters.

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Neither Peavy nor Clay Buchholz deserved to win the way they pitched.

Which brings us to those who believe the Red Sox glass is half-empty.

If Boston's hurlers are going to be mere mortals, their teammates need to provide some run support. Contrary to mounting evidence, there is no city ordinance here outlawing the tabulation of any Boston runs before the fifth inning. And, yet, after two games at Comerica Park, here are the underwhelming totals of the Sox hitters through five: six hits (five of them Wednesday night), zero runs, 14 strikeouts.

At some point, John Farrell has be concerned with the fact his team is hitting a combined .186. Coming into Game 4, the Sox were batting .133, the worst ever after three games in any league championship series. They scattered 12 hits Wednesday, but had only three runs to show for it.

Meanwhile, embattled Detroit manager Jim Leyland scrambled his lineup for Game 4, dropping scuffling leadoff hitter Austin Jackson to the eighth spot and moving Torii Hunter up to leadoff, with Miguel Cabrera batting second, Prince Fielder third and Victor Martinez in the cleanup spot.

That lineup erupted for five runs in the second inning, ignited by a Martinez single, stoked by three walks from Peavy, and upgraded to white-hot with back-to-back RBI hits from Hunter and Cabrera.

Leyland revealed after the game he had hitting coach Lloyd McClendon text his players early Wednesday morning so they wouldn't be taken aback by the wholesale changes in the lineup.

"I don't know if they went, 'Whoa,'" Leyland said. "Maybe sometimes just a jolt like that gets you back in sync a little bit."

[+] EnlargeJohn Farrell
AP Photo/Paul SancyaJohn Farrell is mulling some lineup changes for Game 5. Expect to see Xander Bogaerts in the mix.

So now we must ponder what Farrell will do for Game 5. With Will Middlebrooks submitting yet another underwhelming night at the plate (he is 1-for-10 in this series), you can expect to see Xander Bogaerts take his spot in the lineup for Game 5. Predictably, Farrell didn't tip his hand, but he did acknowledge the obvious: A change might be necessary. Certainly the slumping Stephen Drew (1-for-13) is also a candidate to be replaced by Bogaerts, but the shortstop's defense and his value as a lefty in the lineup will likely save him.

"I haven't made a decision about tomorrow," Farrell said. "But given the way the left side of the infield … we're struggling a little bit to get production out of that side. So it's something that's being considered, for sure."

Drew and Middlebrooks are hardly alone in their futility. Shane Victorino is hitting .125 (2-for-16). David Ortiz, the heart of the clubhouse, is 1-for-15, while the soul of the team, Dustin Pedroia, is 3-for-14.

"We will hit," Pedey predicted. "We led the American League in runs this year. We're swinging the bat. It's gonna happen."

Ortiz expressed the same optimism. But since his grand slam, Big Papi has gone 0-for-8 with a walk.

"I'm not frustrated," Ortiz insisted. "What can I do? I will come back and play tomorrow. I had some good cuts today but I hit them right at people."

Asked if his grand slam seemed like a long time ago, he chuckled, "No. It was just the other day."

Boston brings back Jon Lester to the mound on Thursday, and he will again be opposite Sanchez, who was spectacular in six innings of no-hit baseball in Game 1. Asked if it was beneficial to see Sanchez a second time, Ortiz answered, "Hopefully. Wish me luck."

Those who see the Red Sox glass half-empty fret that Detroit has learned its lesson, that Leyland will never let his bullpen give Ortiz anything to hit again in a key situation. Those who see the Red Sox glass as half-full point to their own bullpen as the single biggest advantage Boston has.

In fact, Game 4 was out of hand so early that Koji Uehara, Craig Breslow and Junichi Tazawa had the night off.

There is plenty of baseball left to be played. When a series is 2-2, it truly is anyone's game.

But the Red Sox need to hit.

Soon.

Jackie MacMullan

ESPNBoston.com columnist

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