DETROIT -- The Boston Red Sox's offense is in the grips of a major funk in the American League Championship Series, which leads to one of two possible conclusions: Either it's time to shave the beards, or resurrect the video from that 20-4 laugher over Detroit in early September for some inspiration.
Here we are, four games into the series, and Boston's lineup doesn't bear the slightest resemblance to the group that led the majors with 853 runs scored and a .795 OPS during the regular season. How offense-challenged are the Sox right now? They scored three runs and struck out 10 times Wednesday night, and it seemed like an offensive extravaganza.
The Sox did manage to accumulate 12 hits (four by leadoff man Jacoby Ellsbury) and produce baserunners galore in a 7-3 loss to the Tigers. But they went 2-for-16 with runners in scoring position and left 10 runners on base as the Tigers evened the series at two wins each. On a positive note, the Red Sox were a portrait in civility and good sportsmanship. David Ortiz, whose monumental grand slam at Fenway Park last weekend remains his only hit in 15 at-bats in the series, spent most of his postgame media scrum raving about Detroit's rotation and the challenges it presents.
With good reason. The Red Sox are hitting .186 as a team in the series. Detroit's four starters -- Anibal Sanchez, Max Scherzer, Justin Verlander and Doug Fister -- are a combined 2-1 with a 1.00 ERA, with 42 strikeouts and 14 hits allowed in 27 innings. If they were this good during the regular season, the Baseball Writers Association might have to find a way to divide the Cy Young Award into quadrants.
"The way they've been pitching, they're taking things to another level," Ortiz said. "The scouting reports have something to do with it, but the scouting report doesn't pitch out there. Those guys still have to execute, and they're executing perfectly fine."
" In a 1-0 loss in Game 1, the Red Sox struck out 17 times against Sanchez and the Detroit pen and barely averted being no-hit when Daniel Nava singled off Joaquin Benoit with one out in the ninth inning.
" In Game 2, the Sox were stifled by Scherzer for seven innings only to find a pulse at the end behind Ortiz's grand slam and Jarrod Saltalamacchia's walkoff single.
" Yes, Game 3 was a classic. But the Red Sox managed to squeak out a 1-0 win only because John Lackey was terrific and Mike Napoli ran into a Verlander fastball and gave it a ride over the left-center field fence.
After hitting .286 and averaging 6.5 runs per game against a solid Tampa Bay staff in the Division Series, the Red Sox have had to scrape for every crumb of offense in this round. Unless the Sox can successfully petition MLB to have Benoit pitch every inning the rest of the way, they could have a challenging 27 innings in front of them before the series concludes.
On the heels of the success that Detroit manager Jim Leyland enjoyed by shaking up his lineup Wednesday, Boston manager John Farrell decided to make a few changes of his own before Game 5 on Thursday. Farrell values stability in the batting order, so Ellsbury, Shane Victorino, Dustin Pedroia, Ortiz and Napoli remained in their usual places in the first five spots in the lineup.
"The one thing that we've maintained is a constant approach with the lineup and not creating further uncertainty," Farrell said. "I think our guys have responded well to that. I thought overall it was a very good offensive approach tonight. Unfortunately, the two-out base hit was elusive. So was any kind of extra-base hit with men on base."
Boston's Game 5 changes were at the bottom of the order. Farrell plugged the right-handed-hitting Jonny Gomes into the No. 6 spot in place of lefty Daniel Nava. Then he had a choice to make -- whether to start rookie Xander Bogaerts for either shortstop Stephen Drew or third baseman Will Middlebrooks, who are hitting a combined .087 (2-for-23) with 11 strikeouts in the series.
Farrell opted to play Bogaerts for Middlebrooks, who was understandably less than thrilled by the news. "I wouldn't expect him to be pleased to not be in the lineup," Farrell said. "He's not real happy."
The precocious Bogaerts made an impression on Farrell in the Tampa Bay series, when he came off the bench and drew a pair of walks in Boston's 3-1 series-clinching victory. He's still a pup at 21, but he posted a .373 on-base percentage in the minor leagues and fits the organizational profile as a patient hitter with plenty of plate discipline.
Bogaerts entered Game 4 as a defensive replacement and sent a double deep into the right-field corner against Benoit in his only plate appearance. With an opportunity and four at-bats, he might give the Red Sox a little energy they've been lacking against the Tigers.
As the Red Sox prepare to face Sanchez, the American League ERA champion, they can take consolation in the fact that they just saw him five days ago at Fenway Park. Then again, Sanchez just saw them as well, and he'll come armed with the same lethal mix of velocity and movement that can make him every bit as formidable as Verlander and Scherzer when he's right.
Do pitchers or hitters gain an edge from repeat confrontations in such a short time span? No one has a definitive answer to that question. But if the Red Sox don't start coming up with some solutions soon, they stand a good chance of finishing on the wrong side of the equation.
"They're pitching well -- that's all I can tell you," Ortiz said. "They're throwing the ball where they want to and they're not making mistakes. I give them credit because they're pitching their asses off. There's nothing we can do about it, but come back and compete tomorrow. We have to execute, and when they make a mistake, which is something they haven't done often, we have to make them pay."
That's easier said than done for the Red Sox when each new day brings another world beater on the mound. Welcome to the life of a hitter in the 2013 postseason.