BOSTON -- One win away from a trip to the World Series, the Red Sox have two chances to earn a berth, beginning with Game 6 of the American League Championship Series Saturday at Fenway Park.
But there are major obstacles standing in the Sox's way. First, Detroit Tigers starter Max Scherzer opposes Clay Buchholz in Game 6. And if the Tigers win to force a Game 7, they'll send Justin Verlander to the hill to take on John Lackey.
Detroit's dual aces are significant roadblocks for the Red Sox, even though the Red Sox managed to win Game 2 versus Scherzer and Game 3 versus Verlander. To understand how difficult that accomplishment was, consider this nugget from ESPN Stats & Information: Scherzer and Verlander made back-to-back starts 19 times during the regular season; in those games, the Tigers won both games seven times, split the two starts 11 times and lost both once.
The Sox don't have to accomplish the Herculean task of beating both hurlers again. Winning one of two is all they need to advance to the Fall Classic. But it's not like Boston hitters have had much success against Scherzer and Verlander so far in this series. Overall, the Red Sox have a .120 average against both pitchers, including only two extra-base hits. Not a single Boston batter has more than one hit total against the two starters.
Scherzer pitched masterfully in Game 2, working seven strong innings and allowing only one run on two hits with two walks and 13 strikeouts. He had to settle for a no-decision as the Red Sox staged a dramatic comeback, thanks in part to David Ortiz's game-tying grand slam in the eighth inning, before Jarrod Saltalamacchia provided the walk-off hit in the ninth.
Even though Scherzer dominated that outing, the Red Sox believe that since they've seen him once, and at his best, they should be able to make the necessary adjustments the second time around. If anything, the Red Sox batters are looking forward to it.
"We have seen him and it's a good challenge," said Red Sox outfielder Daniel Nava. "With this team, with the veteran leadership we have, there's nothing in us that's backing down. He got us once, but we want to get him the second time. Even though we came out with a win that game, he still pitched very well and went deep into the game. The second time is something a lot of guys are looking forward to."
Facing a pitcher for the second time in a series brings a certain comfort level each time a batter steps into the box. Obviously, the same can be said for the Tigers against Buchholz, and if a Game 7 is needed, Lackey, too.
The Red Sox don't expect Scherzer to make too many adjustments, especially since he had a no-hitter through five innings last outing.
"I think we're starting to find our groove," said Red Sox catcher Saltalamacchia. "First few games we weren't swinging the bats really well, weren't finding the holes. The past few games we've been able to so we're going to take that approach tomorrow and do the same thing you always do."
The one thing the Red Sox will attempt to do is work the counts as much as possible. If they can boost Scherzer's pitch count and force the Tigers to go to their bullpen, Boston should have the edge. Also, sitting on the fastball will be the Sox's best bet. They were 3-for-17 off Scherzer's fastball. Overall, Boston was 1-for-26 against off-speed pitches by both Scherzer and Verlander.
In a do-or-die situation for Detroit, Scherzer said he'll remain focused.
"It's pretty easy. You just go out there and pitch your game," he said. "Baseball is still the same, 60 feet, six inches, and you have to throw strikes. The expectations and pressure doesn't mean you change. That's something that's always been instilled in me, and doesn't matter what the situation or what the game means, I'm always going to approach the game the same way."
While the Red Sox expect much of the same from Scherzer, he admitted he will need to make adjustments.
"It changes because they're familiar with what I did," Scherzer said. "Obviously they're going to be looking through the film and watching what I did, the sequences, patterns, when I threw off-speed pitches, when I didn't. Obviously I've got to be ahead of the curve. Obviously I don't know exactly what I'm going to do, but there will be things I do differently."
The Tigers had success against Buchholz in Game 2. The right-hander allowed five runs on eight hits, including a pair of home runs in 5 2/3 innings of work. He'll need to rebound from a tough outing in order to limit Detroit's potent offense.
"Pitching in playoff games is one thing; pitching in deciding playoff games is another," Buchholz said. "I feel like it's two pretty evenly matched teams as of now."
Fenway Park will be rowdy in Game 6, and Scherzer will have a sellout crowd cheering against him. Buchholz said he will channel that energy from the home fans in hopes that it'll help him rebound from his last outing.
"It's a special place. I've always liked pitching there," Buchholz said. "Obviously it's our home field, so it's a little bit easier to say that. Out of all the parks I've pitched in, Fenway is a different type of place. And [the fans] will let you know if you don't do the job. At the same time, if you do well, the fans know the game and it's just a fun place to pitch. Definitely looking forward to getting back out there and giving it another run."
The Red Sox need to create solid at-bats. A trip to the World Series depends on it. All they have to do is beat one of the two best pitchers in baseball to get there.
"It's going to be another pitcher's duel," said Red Sox shortstop Stephen Drew. "It's the postseason. We knew it was going to be this way. It's a dogfight 'til the end."