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October 11. 2013 11:15PM

Dave D'Onofrio's Sox Beat: Sox need arms race stalemate


Red Sox manager John Farrell watches a team workout Thursday at Fenway Park. The American League Championship Series starts tonight with the Detroit Tigers visiting Boston. (Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports)


 

As the Tigers and Athletics readied for the decisive game of their American League Division Series, there were those in Boston, knowing that the winner would take on the Red Sox in the AL Championship Series that opens tonight, who were rooting for Detroit.

It may have been out of respect for the fact Oakland has, according to wins and losses, been the best team in the league over the last season and a half. It may have been because Tigers triple crown slugger Miguel Cabrera is battling his body, which limited him to one home run in 99 at-bats before he went deep Thursday. It may have been because from Aug. 8 on, the Tigers were just a game better than .500.

But John Farrell knows why Detroit is a team the Red Sox would've probably rather avoided.
"The strength of their team is clearly their starting rotation," the Boston manager said Friday.

Injured or not, Cabrera is still a beast every time he steps in the box. The sizzling bat of old friend Victor Martinez was a major factor in the Tigers' series triumph over the A's. Prince Fielder is formidable protection for Cabrera. And Torii Hunter, Austin Jackson, Omar Infante and Jhonny Peralta can all handle the bat, too. There's a reason why Detroit's offense was the AL's second-most prolific this season.

But that's not the biggest reason the Tigers pose a real threat to the Red Sox.

Rather, it's Detroit's ability to throw this season's earned run champion (Anibal Sanchez) in Game 1, then send this year's presumptive Cy Young Award winner (Max Scherzer) to the mound in Game 2, then give the ball to one of the game's most accomplished active pitchers (Justin Verlander) in Game 3. It rounds out the rotation with a right-hander who threw seven shutout innings at Fenway in early September (Doug Fister) in Game 4.

That's a vicious gantlet Jim Leyland can lay down, that quartet giving the Detroit manager a chance to get seven or eight good, maybe even great, innings in every game of this series.

That leaves the Boston manager to draw one conclusion how his team can best combat that strength.

"I look upon the key to us," Farrell said, "is our starters to keep a game in check."

It's not impossible that the Sox could match the Tigers if each of their own starters pitches to their potential, though it's imperative that Boston's pitchers at least keep their club competitive. Thursday afternoon, the manager laid out his plans for whom he'll trust to make that happen.

Already he'd announced that Jon Lester will take on Sanchez tonight, and it's now official that Clay Buchholz will go up against Scherzer on Sunday night.

In the Division Series, Farrell and the rest of Boston's brass opted to seize on John Lackey's splits, and gave him the ball in Game 2 because he was a much better pitcher at Fenway. They pushed Buchholz back to a potentially pivotal Game 3, then went with Jake Peavy for Game 4.

The equation changes significantly, however, as the playoffs move from best-of-five to best-of-seven series. And that change had to be considered heavily when setting the rotation for the ALCS, given the consequences it could render.

On one hand, it would've been be easy for the Sox to ensure that Lackey plays to his strengths by pitching at home, and they wouldn't even have to move him from his turn following Lester. Whoever starts Game 2 on Sunday will be lined up to also start Game 6 the following Saturday, and both of those tilts will take place at Fenway thanks to the series' 2-3-2 format.

However, the risk there is that by not pitching Buchholz until Game 3, he wouldn't be slotted to go again until Game 7. Given that the righty is arguably the best starter on the staff, and no worse than second-best, it might be difficult for Farrell to set up a scenario where Detroit puts Boston on the brink of elimination entering Game 6 but has one of the AL's premier arms available sitting idly until the next night. The decision to start Buchholz Sunday should avoid that.

Lackey, subsequently, will start the first game at Comerica Park (against Verlander). Peavy, then, will take on Fister on Wednesday, with Farrell apparently not putting much stock into their respective performances in the Division Series.

Over the season, Lackey's numbers give the appearance that he's more deserving of making two starts. His 3.52 earned run average was more than half a run better than Peavy's 4.17, and while the two allowed a similar number of baserunners, Lackey's ERA looks even better when factoring ballparks into the mix and comparing performance to league average.

But in his first season since undergoing Tommy John surgery on his elbow, Lackey has seemed to fade since the start of September. Even with a two-hit complete game factored in, his ERA in September was 4.98. Then he surrendered 11 baserunners in 5 1/3 innings during his Game 2 outing against the Rays. He allowed four runs, so he came away with the win, but he wasn't particularly sharp.

Peavy's ERA is only a tick better dating to Aug. 31 at 4.78, though his ALDS outing was much better than Lackey's. While the Rays were mixing and matching and keeping the Sox scoreless in Game 4, Peavy kept the Sox in the game by matching zeroes except for one frame, when the Rays paired a double and a single to produce the only run he surrendered over 5 2/3 quality innings.

What might've settled matters is that whoever pitches Game 3 would also be lined up to pitch Game 7. And while Peavy's most recent performance was the first good playoff start of his career, Lackey won the seventh game of the World Series for the Angels in 2002. Both are ultra-competitive bulldogs, but Lackey's experience could be valuable there if the series gets that far.

If the Sox's starters match the Tigers' enough to make that happen.

Dave D'Onofrio covers the Red Sox for the New Hampshire Union Leader and Sunday News. His e-mail address is ddonof13@gmail.com.


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