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October 15, 2013

Playoff Prospectus

ALCS Game Three Preview: Red Sox at Tigers

by Ben Carsley

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Red Sox (John Lackey) vs. Tigers (Justin Verlander) – 4 p.m. EST
PECOTA Odds of Winning: Tigers 69.4%, Red Sox 30.6%

Red Sox vs. Verlander (R)

Tigers vs. Lackey (R)

Jacoby Ellsbury, CF (L)

Austin Jackson, CF (R)

Shane Victorino, RF (S)

Torii Hunter, RF (R)

Dustin Pedroia, 2B (R)

Miguel Cabrera, 3B (R)

David Ortiz, DH (L)

Prince Fielder, 1B (L)

Mike Napoli, 1B (R)

Victor Martinez, DH (S)

Jonny Gomes, LF (R)

Jhonny Peralta, SS (R)

Stephen Drew, SS (L)

Alex Avila, C (L)

Will Middlebrooks, 3B (R)

Omar Infante, 2B (R)

David Ross, C (R)

Don Kelly, LF (L)

Unless you love the Tigers or hate the Red Sox, Game Two of the ALCS was a prime example of why playoff baseball is the best.

The Red Sox were all but dead heading into the eighth inning. MLB’s best offense during the regular season had mustered just one run and three hits in 16 innings against the Tigers’ pitching staff, thanks in large part to two dominant outings by Anibal Sanchez and Max Scherzer. It looked like the Tigers had the Red Sox on the rope not just for Game Two, but for the entire ALCS.

Then David Ortiz happened. And, despite his best efforts to kill Boston’s rally with a grand slam, Big Papi lived up to his reputation as a big-time postseason performer.

The victory was a huge one for the Red Sox, as they must now travel to Detroit where they face relief from the likes of Sanchez and Scherzer in the form of… Justin Verlander.

Perhaps, Verlander had a “down year,” but only by his incredibly lofty standards. The right-hander still threw 218 1/3 innings, struck out 217 batters, and posted an ERA of 3.46 while contributing 4.3 WARP. Those numbers are worth repeating here, because it’s easy to lose sight of just how good he was in 2013.

Verlander himself seems intent on putting a stop to the narrative that his best days are behind him, as he’s been filthy in two postseason starts thus far. 2011’s AL Cy Young Award winner and MVP hasn’t allowed a run in 15 innings, striking out 21 and walking just two in that span.

Ortiz and Mike Napoli have had some success against Verlander in the past, but other than that there’s little reason for optimism among the men expected to find themselves in Boston’s starting lineup tomorrow. Manager John Farrell yesterday said that David Ross will start in place of Jarrod Saltalamacchia behind the plate, and hinted that Jonny Gomes may once again get the start over Daniel Nava.

While the former move makes sense—Ross gives Boston a better shot at shutting down the running game with Lackey on the mound, and Salty could need a day off—the latter is a bit puzzling. Gomes hit .258/.341/.404 against righties in 176 PA this season, which is respectable, but Nava hit .322/.411/.484 against righties in nearly 400 PA.

It will be interesting to see if Boston uses the same grind-it-out approach it used to vs. Sanchez and Scherzer in an attempt to get to Detroit’s bullpen, or whether they’ll be more aggressive, as they were in hammering David Price.

Either way, the Red Sox would be wise to score some runs, as they’re running out arguably their weakest postseason rotation member in John Lackey.

While the big right-hander’s comeback season in 2013 has surprised many, Lackey has struggled as of late, throwing just one quality start in his last five tries after a dominating stretch in late August. In his ALDS start against the Rays, Lackey gave up four runs in 5.3 innings.

Manager Jim Leyland has said that Don Kelly will start Game Three in left field with Peralta starting at shortstop again, which gives Detroit their best offensive lineup against righties. As far as the Tigers’ history vs. Lackey goes, Cabrera, Fielder, Martinez and Peralta have all faired quite well against him in the past, making the middle of Detroit’s order pretty daunting for Boston’s starter. Jackson and Kelly have also had some success, albeit in very small sample sizes, while Hunter, Avila and Infante have struggled. In two starts against Detroit this year, Lackey went 14.3 innings, allowing five earned runs in that span.

Heading into the series, we were told that Cabrera’s health may limit him both at the plate and defensively. The former certainly hasn’t been the case—Cabrera has reached base three times and has a homer in the series’ first two games—and the Red Sox have yet to really test Cabrera on the latter.

Thanks to the off day, both bullpens should have all arms at the ready. Felix Doubront was the lone reliever to throw more than an inning in Game Two.

My prediction: PECOTA has the Tigers as overwhelming favorites in this one, and while you can never count Boston’s offense out of a game, I think that’s about right. Verlander vs. Lackey skews heavily in the favor of Detroit, and I’d expect the Tigers to prove that momentum is only as good as the next game’s starting pitcher.

Ben Carsley is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Ben's other articles. You can contact Ben by clicking here

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