- Jerry Crasnick, ESPN.com MLB Sr. Writer
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DETROIT -- The folks at Baseball Info Solutions keep an obscure stat that tells us that Boston Red Sox second baseman Dustin Pedroia has turned 20 double plays over the past three seasons while runners bear down on him with "aggressive" takeout slides. In other words, when a 220-pounder wearing the other team's jersey is grunting and snorting and gets close enough for Pedroia to see his nostril hair, Boston's diminutive catalyst hangs in there with no fear for his personal well-being and gets the job done.
This may not be the perfect way to illustrate what Pedroia and the Red Sox accomplished on their way to a 4-3 victory over the Detroit Tigers at Comerica Park on Thursday night. But it will do until something better comes along.
For the first four games of the American League Championship Series, the focus has been on dominant pitching and overmatched hitters trudging back to the dugout with crushed spirits and bad body language. Game 5 was more of a baseball hodgepodge. There was some terrific defense interspersed with absent-minded baserunning. The starting pitching was OK, and the relievers were airtight. In the end, it was more about mental toughness and a "dirtbag" mentality than 98 mph fastballs and pitching artistry.
"It's been a grind," said Boston third baseman Will Middlebrooks, who watched most of this one from the dugout. "It feels like the games are six hours long -- because they're actually pretty close to six hours long."
When the Red Sox wake up sometime late Friday morning or early afternoon, they'll be in a pretty good place. And we're not necessarily talking about Boston.
With Game 6 scheduled for Saturday afternoon and Game 7 (if necessary) on tap Sunday, the Red Sox need to figure out a way to beat Max Scherzer or Justin Verlander to advance to the World Series for the third time since 2004. Although that's not an easy task, it certainly beats the alternative: Heading back to Fenway this weekend with a mandate to beat both Detroit aces or go home would have been the baseball equivalent to bumping up against the debt ceiling.
"We know this series is not over," said Boston catcher David Ross. "They're really good, and they've got two really good pitchers in their back pocket. We need to come out and set the tone early. We're just glad to be going back home up one."
Boston manager John Farrell, following Jim Leyland's lead, tinkered with his lineup card and made a few changes in the order Thursday night. Jonny Gomes, who took over for Daniel Nava in left field, went hitless in four at-bats. But rookie Xander Bogaerts doubled in his first at-bat while subbing in for Middlebrooks at third, and the 36-year-old Ross looked downright spry taking over for Jarrod Saltalamacchia at catcher. Ross singled and doubled in three at-bats, and bashed into Detroit's Alex Avila at the plate in a collision of two players with concussion histories.
Mike Napoli, who continues to take good swings out of the No. 5 hole while David Ortiz struggles mightily in front of him, gave the Red Sox a 1-0 lead in the second inning when he drove an Anibal Sanchez fastball over the 420-foot mark in center field and into some shrubbery where baseballs typically aren't intended to land.
The ball traveled an estimated 460 feet. According to ESPN's Hit Tracker, it's the major league-leading fourth time Napoli has exceeded the 460-foot barrier this season.
"Oh my, that was far," said Boston outfielder Shane Victorino. "He hit a few this year in Toronto that were far -- and beyond. But to do it here, in the nighttime? That's far."
The Red Sox padded their lead on run-scoring hits by Ross and Jacoby Ellsbury, added a fourth run on a wild pitch, and then hung on behind Jon Lester and the bullpen. It only seemed like six hours because they were sweating out most of the 3 hours and 47 minutes the game actually took to complete.
With this Boston team, just about everyone eventually finds a way to contribute. Middlebrooks, who went 1-for-10 with five strikeouts in the first four games of the series, was miffed before the game when informed that he was being benched in favor of Bogaerts. Farrell made that plain in his pre-game news conference with reporters.
"I wouldn't expect him to be pleased," Farrell said. "That's just who he is, and that's the overriding attitude in our clubhouse. In my conversation with him, yeah, he's not real happy."
Fast-forward to the top of the ninth inning. Bogaerts walked and Middlebrooks came in to pinch-run and then take the field for defense in the bottom of the inning. When Ross laid down a sacrifice bunt, Middlebrooks could have been content to stop at second base. But he alertly kept running and advanced all the way to third. Even though he failed to score, it was a case of a young player putting his disappointment aside and playing the game the right way, because Boston's clubhouse culture wouldn't accept anything less.
"I'm not moping at all," Middlebrooks said. "I might have been pissed a little at the beginning, but that's just the competitor in me. I want to play every day and help us win. They told me, 'This is what we're going to do today. We feel this is our best chance.' And I trust them. I trust them with every decision they make."
Sometimes it's about grinding out wins in October that seem more like battles of attrition. Game 5 was about closer Koji Uehara going five outs for the save, and the Red Sox throwing out Miguel Cabrera at home plate and turning three double plays a night after some sloppy defense and fundamentals contributed to a 7-3 loss.
Pedroia, who sets an extraordinarily high standard for himself, engaged in some tough self-analysis after failing to handle a couple of hot shots that could have made a difference in Game 4.
"I ran through those plays last night a billion times and I wouldn't have done anything different," Pedroia said. "Those are reaction plays. I didn't sleep. But there's nothing more I could have done. It's one of those deals where you go out and get them tomorrow. It happens."
That tunnel vision, along with a surplus of talent, helps explain how the Red Sox improved from 69 to 97 victories and went the entire season without incurring a losing streak of more than three games. It sounds far-fetched when the Boston players say they gave little thought to the dire consequences that would await them if they had to face Scherzer and Verlander down 3-2 in the series. Yet Pedroia insists that's the case.
"We don't think about that stuff," Pedroia said. "We don't look at the big picture. We're worried about the first pitch in a couple of days, and that's it. In this environment you can't say, 'We're worried about facing this guy or that guy.' We're just worried about playing the game."
The Red Sox have gotten this far by playing for each other, competing for all 27 outs and tuning out the static and focusing on the elements within their control. They're one day, nine innings and another win away from taking a giant step closer to the prize that drives them all.
It wasn't always pretty, but Boston got a win it needed in Game 5, writes Jerry Crasnick.