The Boston Red Sox were dead, crushed in for the second straight game by a dominant starting pitcher, their bats swinging through nasty fastballs and ungodly breaking stuff from Max Scherzer. It was a tip-your-cap kind of game. Pack your suitcases and head to Detroit and figure out how to beat Justin Verlander in Game 3 to avoid falling down three games to zero in the American League Championship Series.
Then came the eighth inning ... an inning that could turn the entire 2013 season. An inning that is going to cause Jim Leyland a lot of lost sleep the next two nights.
Scherzer had followed up Justin Verlander’s division series clincher against Oakland and Anibal Sanchez’s 12-strikeout gem in Game 1 by taking a no-hitter into the sixth inning. The Red Sox scratched a run across that inning, but the Tigers had already knocked Clay Buchholz from the game with four runs in the top of the frame. When Scherzer cruised through a 1-2-3 seventh -- including his 12th and 13th strikeouts -- it appeared a victory was in hand, the Tigers up 5-1 and the Red Sox's offense have recorded just three hits while striking out 30 times in the two games.
Then came a series of fateful decisions by Leyland and the Tigers. Let’s look at each one.
1. Removing Scherzer after 108 pitches.
Argument for: You’re up by four runs, it’s a long postseason haul, so there’s no need to push Scherzer unnecessarily deep into the game. You have to manage looking ahead to the rest of this series and the World Series. Yes, he’d thrown more than 108 pitches 14 times in the regular season but he’d topped 120 just twice with a high of 123, so it was unlikely he'd finish the inning anyway. Plus, the Detroit bullpen is better than everyone gives it credit for: Joaquin Benoit had a 2.01 ERA, Drew Smyly a 2.37 ERA, Jose Veras pitched well after coming over from Houston and Al Alburquerque fanned 70 in 49 1/3 innings. It’s not a deep pen, but Benoit and Smyly in particular were very good at the end of games.
Argument against: Scherzer is one of the best pitchers in the game and he’d thrown only 108 pitches. The Red Sox hadn’t done anything against him all game. At least wait until he gives up a baserunner before you take him out. What’s the old saying? No lead in Fenway is safe? You use your best guys for as long as you can and Scherzer was still the best guy.
Verdict: I can’t rip Leyland too harshly for this one. A four-run lead should be safe. If there’s one issue: Why start the inning with Jose Veras instead of Smyly when two of the next three batters were left-handed? But even then, it’s possible John Farrell hits Xander Bogaerts for Stephen Drew if Smyly starts the inning.
2. Bringing in Smyly to face Jacoby Ellsbury.
Argument for: Smyly held lefties to .189/.225/.246 line, so bring him to get Ellsbury and stop a rally from getting started.
Argument against: Even if Ellsbury gets on against Veras, the tying run is still two batters away. You could still let Veras face the right-handers. But if you bring in Smyly and Ellsbury gets on, then do you let Smyly face the two righties? Probably not, considering both are much better against left-handers.
Verdict: Again, I can’t rip Leyland too harshly as on paper as he got a good matchup with a better pitcher. The question: Do you assume a worst-case scenario and start thinking about David Ortiz looming four spots away? If so, then you have to ask: Who do you want facing Big Papi?
3. Replacing Smyly with Alburquerque.
Smyly walked Ellsbury, which is the one thing Leyland didn’t count on, because that left him with this choice: Do you bring in your fourth-best reliever to get the platoon advantage, leave in your second-best reliever, or go to your closer?
Argument for Alburquerque: Righties hit .202/.346/.337 off him, but just .130 in the second half. He has been pretty deadly since the All-Star break with that wipeout slider.
Argument for Smyly: You have to be concerned about Ortiz in case Victorino or Pedroia get on, and he would be the best matchup.
Argument for Benoit: He's your closer. If he can get four outs, he can get five.
Verdict: Considering the way Alburquerque has been throwing, it's hard to rip this decision. Smyly had walked Ellsbury, so would you have confidence in him facing Ortiz if it got to that point?
4. Bringing in Benoit to face Ortiz.
Victorino struck out but Pedroia singled to right, third-base coach Brian Butterfield wisely holding Middlebrooks at third, even with two outs. That brought up Ortiz. What do you do now? You have to take out Alburquerque, but do you bring in Benoit or the lefty Phil Coke?
Argument for Benoit: He has been your best reliever all year, and as a setup guy most of his career he's used to entering with runners on base. His dead fish changeup makes him very effective against left-handers; they hit .194 with just one home run off him.
Argument for Coke: Ortiz was 2-for-18 in his career off Coke. Ortiz hit .339 against righties and .260 against lefties. Plus, you added Coke to the roster this round basically to face Ortiz, right?
Verdict: Considering Coke hadn't pitched in a major league game since Sept. 18 and didn't have a great season when he did pitch (lefties hit .299 against him), it's again hard to fault Leyland here. Yes, it raises the question of why Coke is even on the roster, but Benoit has been getting out lefties all season. Of all the choices, once we got to this point, I think this was the most obviously correct one. No way can you trust Coke here.
5. Bringing in Rick Porcello for the ninth.
Benoit threw Ortiz a first-pitch changeup, it hung up too much and Ortiz launched it into the bullpen, sending Torii Hunter tumbling over the fence and making this policeman very happy. After the Tigers failed to score, Leyland replaced Benoit in the ninth with Porcello.
Argument for Benoit: He has been your best reliever. He threw just eight pitches in the eighth (after throwing 22 in Game 1). He can easily go one more inning.
Argument for Porcello: You have to look at the big picture and think about having Benoit ready for Game 3. Porcello's stuff plays up as a reliever and he gets ground balls, so you don't have to worry as much about him serving up a game-losing home run.
Verdict: I'm not a big Porcello fan, but he was clearly the next guy on your roster. I'd have gone with Benoit for one more inning.
There is no argument here. Iglesias had no chance to get Gomes; you have to eat the ball there. But the worse play was Prince Fielder failing to use his large body to knock the ball down and prevent it from rolling into the dugout. Bad decision by Iglesias, but a lazy, terrible play by Fielder. Gomes goes to second on the throwing error, advances on a wild pitch and Jarrod Saltalamacchia singles past the drawn-in infield.
One crazy inning. To me, it wasn't so much one bad decision by Leyland leading to another, but simply a matter of one result leading to another decision. Did Leyland overthink things? Maybe, especially since he had implied before the series that it's the type of series you win and lose with your starting pitchers. Tigers fans will obviously second-guess the decision to remove Scherzer, but at the time it didn't seem like an egregious error.
It just didn't work out. The Red Sox's hitters beat the Tigers' bullpen. They avoid a two-game disaster at Fenway Park and the Tigers are left wondering what happened. We're left wondering how the eighth inning will affect Leyland's confidence in his bullpen moving forward.
My prediction: Verlander throws more than 108 pitches in Game 3.