History in the Making: Detroit Tigers vs. Boston Red Sox ALCS Breakdown

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Jim Leyland and John Farrell

June 20, 2013; Detroit, MI, USA; Detroit Tigers manager Jim Leyland (10) and Boston Red Sox manager John Farrell (53) before the game at Comerica Park. Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

The Detroit Tigers are five years older than the Boston Red Sox, beginning play in 1896 while the Boston “Americans” started playing baseball in 1901.

The Tigers opened Navin Field on the corner of Michigan and Trumbull on April 20, 1912, the same day Boston christened Fenway Park at 4 Yawkey Way.

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In more than 100 years of baseball, the two storied franchises have never met in the postseason. That all changes at 8:07 p.m. Saturday when Boston hosts Detroit in the American League Championship Series.

While they dominated the early part of 20th century together, the Red Sox and Tigers couldn’t face each other in the playoffs until the American League split into two divisions in 1969 and had the American League Championship Series to decide who represented the American League against the elder National League in the World Series.

The two have battled in regular season play for a trip to the World Series. Boston edged Detroit and Minnesota on the final day of the regular season in 1967 and a play-in game with Detroit over Minnesota would have pitted Carl Yastrzemski’s Red Sox against Al Kaline’s Tigers.

In 1972, Detroit edged Boston by a half game to win the AL East but were knocked out by the eventual World Series champion Oakland A’s in the best-of-five ALCS.

The two teams have a parallel and highs and lows when it comes to the postseason. The two teams have won a combined 11 World Series titles with Boston holding a 7-4 lead. Both legions of fans carry a private jealousy of the New York Yankees, who are in their 100th year of competition in the American  League and have 27 World Series titles.

While Boston won titles in 1903, 1912, 1915, 1916 and 1918, Detroit captured titles in 1935 and 1945. Boston lost the 1967 World Series in seven games to the St. Louis Cardinals. Detroit beat St. Louis in seven games for the World Series title in 1968. Detroit lost the 1972 AL pennant to Oakland and Boston lost the 1975 World Series to the Cincinnati Reds in seven games.

Detroit won the World Series in 1984, and Boston countered with a World Series defeat in 1986 to the New York Mets. Detroit and Boston lost ALCS decisions in 1987, 1988 and 1990 and Detroit went into obscurity in the AL Central as the Red Sox broke their Babe Ruth curse with titles in 2004 and 2007. The Tigers followed those titles with World Series losses in 2006 and 2012.

The showdown is history in the making. Oakland and Tampa Bay tried to throw a wrench into destiny’s plans but the two most powerful teams in the AL had to meet. Somewhere, between Heaven and Hell, the two best hitters all-time in the American League – Ty Cobb and Ted Williams – are exchanging old war stories and laying down wagers on this ALCS.

And here’s my breakdown …

Detroit’s offensive attack: Defending AL MVP Miguel Cabrera has been hobbled for two months with groin and abdomen injuries, and while his two-run homer on an inside pitch in Game 5 of the ALDS gave fans a glimmer of hope that the power from his 44 home run season may have returned, questions remain on his opposite field power. However, former Red Sox catcher Victor Martinez has been the AL’s best hitter since the All-Star break and Jhonny Peralta has returned from a 50-game suspension right where he left off – a consistent and powerful bat in the six hole. Veterans Omar Infante and Torii Hunter have contributed all season with tough at-bats from the right side of the plate while Alex Avila has provided clutch at-bats with power from the left side of the plate.

Key to the attack: Detroit needs improvement from two key spots in its lineup – leadoff and cleanup. Austin Jackson was dismal against Oakland pitching, looking lost at the plate while striking out 13 times in 20 trips to the plate. He batted .100 and walked once, posting a lousy .143 on-base percentage. That’s not a table-setter. However, Jackson batted .478 with a 1.147 OPS in seven games against Boston this season, striking out six times in 26 at-bats. While Prince Fielder’s protection has allowed Cabrera a good chance at two-straight AL MVP honors, his play in the postseason has left something to be desired. He had five singles and a walk in 20 at-bats and didn’t knock in a run while posting a modest .278 batting average in the ALDS. He was worse in the World Series last year, slapping a single in 15 at-bats with no walks and four strikeouts. He finished with a .071 average and in 76 postseason at-bats for the Tigers and has one home run to account for his extra base hits. In his career, Fielder is a .197 hitter in 139 postseason at-bats.

Boston’s offensive attack: If anyone can intimidate Detroit’s powerful rotation of right-handed pitchers it’s postseason veteran left-hander David Ortiz. The 6-foot-4, 250-pound imposing designated hitter has 307 postseason at-bats to his credit in a career that started with Detroit’s AL Central rival Minnesota back in 2002. Ortiz is a .288 lifetime hitter in the postseason with 14 homers (two behind all-time postseason home run hitter Carlos Beltran) and 50 RBIs. Ortiz is looking to maintain momentum from the ALDS win over Tampa where he belted a pair of homers and hit .385 with five base on balls in 18 at-bats. Boston’s balance should scare the Tigers the most. Jacoby Ellsbury has scored 92 runs and led MLB with 52 stolen bases in 56 attempts. Table setters Shane Victorino (.294) and Dustin Pedroia (.301) have found ways to move runners and score runs in front of Ortiz and first baseman Mike Napoli.

Key to the attack: Mike Napoli is coming off a 2-for-13 performance in the ALDS with four walks, one extra base hit and one RBI. It’s imperative Napoli offers protection for Ortiz and may have to produce better than the last time he met the Tigers in the postseason. (In six games with Texas in the 2011 ALDS, Napoli batted .292 against the Tigers but had just 1 RBI on seven singles). The Red Sox must find punch in the back of the lineup. Daniel Nava/Jonny Gomes, Stephen Drew and Will Middlebrooks all batted below their season average in the ALDS and must find ways to manufacture runs here and there to take pressure off of Boston’s big hitters.

Offensive advantage: Boston … by an inch inside the chalkline. The Red Sox overtook Detroit for first place among all teams in MLB in runs scored, on-base percentage and slugging. Detroit was second place in those categories and edged the Red Sox for the lead in batting average. While Cabrera remains talented at 70 percent, his special power to drive pitches to all parts of the field has diminished since September. Boston’s speed and balance is a slight edge to Detroit’s station-to-station style.

Detroit’s starting pitching: After Justin Verlander’s 17 innings of scoreless pitching in the ALDS and Scherzer’s two victories that include two clutch innings in Game 4’s win over Oakland, the Tigers bring two Cy Young types into the postseason. Boston signed Anibal Sanchez as a free agent out of Venezuela in 2001 but arm trouble led Sanchez to the Miami Marlins who ultimately traded him to the Tigers. With a 14-8 record and an AL-best 2.57 ERA, it’s arguable that Sanchez would be Boston’s ace this year had he remained. Doug Fister is Detroit’s fourth starter and the righty can force ground balls against Boston’s powerful offense but he hasn’t in  the past, posting a 2-4 record with a 4.36 ERA lifetime against the Red Sox.

Boston’s starting pitching: John Farrell has worked wonders on the Red Sox pitching staff, helping them erase almost two runs off their team ERA from last season. Saturday’s starter Jon Lester went from 9-14 in 2012 to 15-8 this season with a 3.75 ERA. Lester, with that 2007 World Series title in Boston under his belt,  has held postseason opponents to a .199 batting average in 49 2/3 innings. Clay Buchholz missed three months with a sore shoulder but has been dominant down the stretch with a 12-1 record and a sterling 1.74 ERA. John  Lackey will pitch Game 3 at Comerica where he is 4-1 lifetime with a 3.82 ERA. Game 4 starter Jake Peavy is plenty familiar with the Tigers lineup from his stint with the Chicago White Sox.  Cabrera has homered three times in a team-high 45 at-bats against Peavy while Hunter has a team-high .438 batting average against him.

Starting pitching advantage: Detroit. The Tigers arguably have the three best arms in the matchup with Verlander, Scherzer and Sanchez. If Sanchez, who gave up an uncharacteristic three homers in his last start, can sneak a win for the Tigers in Game 1, the Tigers would have a pair of should-be Cy Young winners on deck to put the Red Sox at risk of getting struck out of the series.

Detroit’s bullpen: After Jose Valverde’s meltdown in the postseason last year and a last chance attempt this year, Joaquin Benoit has filled in the closer role with great mettle for the position. He saved 24 games in 26 attempts, posted a 2.01 ERA and was nearly voted into the All-Star game. Drew Smyly is 6-0 with a 2.37 ERA and claimed the lefty specialist role from Phil Coke, who has struggled mightily but has past postseason success. Al Alburquerque has 70 strikeouts in 49 innings but his 34 walks are worrisome. Rick Porcello turned in a solid 13-8 record with a 4.32 ERA as the fifth starter and will be called upon to fill a big hole left by rookie flamethrower Bruce Rondon, who is nursing a sore shoulder and is out again for the ALCS.

Boston’s bullpen: Since June, Koji Uehara has excelled in the closer’s role and helped solidify the Red Sox middle relief in the process. While he appeared bitten after surrendering his first homer since June that allowed Tampa a walk-off victory, he responded the next night to earn the save and bounce the Rays. The righty has struck out 101 batters and walked just nine. Wow! Throw in Junichi Tazawa, lefty specialist Craig Breslow (1.81 ERA) and veteran starter Ryan Dempster and the Red Sox look as tough as any team on the back end.

Bullpen advantage: Boston. While the Tigers will rely less on its back end than the Red Sox, it’s still a rollercoaster and it showed in Game 5 of the ALDS as Benoit surrendered two runs in the ninth to the A’s before recovering for the save. Boston has more dependable arms than Detroit in a series of terrific offenses. That is key.

Defensive advantage: Boston.  The Red Sox bolstered their pitching when they picked up Jake Peavy from Chicago but they also handed Detroit the best defender the Tigers have in flashy rookie shortstop Jose Iglesias. Iglesias is a wildcard for Detroit because he is one of the only Tigers that can produce runs with bunts, slap hits and stolen bases. Speaking of stolen bases, Ellsbury, Victorino and Pedroia frighten Detroit with their speed. At one point this season, Tigers catchers didn’t throw out a base thief for more than a month. Detroit’s pitchers did a good job of holding Oakland runners in the ALDS but the Red Sox are more aggressive and powerful than Oakland. Jhonny Peralta also compromises Detroit’s defense. His range is far worse than Iglesias’ but Detroit manager Jim Leyland needs his bat in the lineup. Peralta is new to left field and that Green Monster looms large behind him. Cabrera’s injury has forced the big fella to play even with the bag at third, providing even a bigger hole between him and whoever is playing shortstop. Austin Jackson and Torii Hunter gives Detroit a definite advantage in the outfield when the series shifts to Comerica.

Who wins?: With history’s energy present in this highly-anticipated clash of two of baseball’s oldest clubs, Boston wins in the closest seven game series you will ever see. Boston’s ability to use speed to manufacture runs late and rely on a steady bullpen gives the Red Sox the overall edge and a key to the World Series. But in this age of pitching, and a starting rotation that broke the record for strikeouts as a staff in the regular season, Detroit has a chance to win this series in five games.

Geoff Mott, a sportswriter at MLive for 17 years has covered the Detroit Lions training camp and other professional sports but now sticks to high school athletics.
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