Posted October 17, 2013

ALCS Preview: Red Sox at Tigers, Game 5

ALCS, Boston Red Sox, Detroit Tigers
Anibal Sanchez, Tigers

Anibal Sanchez didn’t allow a hit to the Red Sox in his Game 1 start. (Michael Ivins/Getty Images)

Red Sox at Tigers
Start time: 8:00 p.m. ET
TV: FOX
Series: tied 2-2
Starting pitchers: Jon Lester (1-1, 1.93 ERA) vs. Anibal Sanchez (1-1, 4.35 ERA)

Since the League Championship Series format changed to a best-of-seven in 1985, 14 series prior to this one have started off 2-2. In those 14, the winner of Game 5 went on to win the series 11 times, or 79 percent. That percentage drops if we add in World Series history to increase the sample size. In the LCS and World Series combined, 55 best-of-seven series started out 2-2, and the winner of Game 5 won 37 of those, a still-significant 67 percent.

That’s the history the Boston Red Sox and Detroit Tigers face entering play on Thursday night. Both teams send their Game 1 starters to the mound in Jon Lester and Anibal Sanchez, respectively. In that first game, Sanchez and a trio of Tigers relievers took a no-hitter into the ninth inning for just the fourth time in postseason history and it became just the second to be broken up in that inning when Boston’s Daniel Nava singled to center.

Sanchez pitched the first six of those no-hit innings for Detroit, striking out 12 Red Sox, but was pulled from the game at that point having thrown 116 pitches, due to the combination of all of those strikeouts and six walks. The game ended in a 1-0 Tigers victory, due to Lester also turning in a strong-but-inefficient six innings, holding Detroit to that one run on six hits, five of them singles, and a walk while striking out four.

Lester has now allowed just two runs in 13 innings in his last two starts against the Tigers, but in his last outing in Detroit, back on June 21, he was lit up for five runs in 5 2/3 innings and allowed home runs to Miguel Cabrera and Andy Dirks.  In their careers, the men on the Tigers’ ALCS roster have hit a collective .361/.425/.539 in 200 career plate appearances against Lester, who had a 4.21 ERA on the road during the regular season and will be making his first road start of the postseason in this game. With Detroit’s bats having sprung to life in Game 4, pushing across seven runs, one more than the team’s total in the first three games combined, drawing the lefthanded Lester in their ballpark could be a favorable matchup for the Tigers.

As for Sanchez, his two starts this postseason couldn’t have been much more different. He was lit up for six runs in 4 1/3 innings against the A’s in the Division Series, then twirled six hitless innings with 12 strikeouts in Game 1 of this series. Given his performance during the regular season, which saw him lead the American League in ERA and strikeout 10 men per nine innings, the former seems like the larger fluke. It’s worth remembering, however, that prior to Game 1 Sanchez had last pitched against the Red Sox in relief as a rookie in 2006. As a result, only long-time National Leaguers Shane Victorino, Stephen Drew and David Ross had faced him since that ’06 relief outing. Now, the entire Boston lineup has had a recent look at Sanchez, and that could translate to better at-bats in Game 5.

The Tigers’ lineup restructuring for Game 4 — leadoff hitter Austin Jackson was dropped to eighth and everyone in front of him moved up one spot — produced the desired result, so look for manager Jim Leyland to stick with it again in Game 5. That said, it might be time for Leyland to drop Prince Fielder in the lineup as well. Fielder didn’t reach base in Game 4 and is now hitting a mere .242/.324/.273 in 37 plate appearances in this postseason. In addition, he has slugged .294 in his 19 career PA against fellow lefty Lester. The switch-hitting Victor Martinez can provide lefty protection for Miguel Cabrera in the No. 3 spot. The only issue with dropping Fielder is finding a spot lower in the lineup where he doesn’t hit next to the team’s only other pure lefty, Alex Avila.

Another tough decision for Leyland in this game is going to be trusting his closer, Joaquin Benoit. Benoit has been charged with four runs in 5 2/3 innings in this postseason, not counting the three inherited runners he allowed to score. In his three appearances in this series he has given up the first Red Sox hit of Game 1, David Ortiz’s series-altering grand slam in Game 2 and, after two days of rest, a double and a triple to his first two batters in Game 4. As a group, the Tigers’ relievers have been charged with six runs in eight innings (6.75 ERA, not counting inherited runners who have scored) while the Red Sox’ bullpen has yet to be charged with a run in 13 1/3 innings and has allowed just one inherited runner to score.

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