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October 16. 2013 10:55PM

Dave D'Onofrio's Sox Beat: Series now tied, Boston hopes hitting will come around


Boston Red Sox second baseman Dustin Pedroia reacts after striking out against the Detroit Tigers in the ninth inning of Wednesday's game. (Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports)

Heading into Wednesday's Game 4 of the American League Championship Series, Tigers manager Jim Leyland decided to make a significant tweak to the top of his lineup, the longtime baseball man certainly aware of the urgency and desperation suggested by his putting players in unfamiliar positions at this point in the postseason.
 
Austin Jackson, Detroit's leadoff hitter in 102 of its last 106 games, would bat eighth. Torii Hunter, who hadn't hit leadoff since 1999, would leap to the top of the order. And Miguel Cabrera, who had hit third in every game he'd played the past two seasons, would slide up to the No. 2 hole for the first time in nine years.

"Maybe it wakes you up a little bit," explained Leyland.


If either offense could've used a resuscitation, though, it was the Red Sox'. They'd set a big-league record for futility by hitting .133 over the first three games of a championship series — yet instead they stood pat, John Farrell rolling his same Game 3 lineup into the next day, with the lone exception of Daniel Nava taking left field from Jonny Gomes.

Such decisions marked the difference between going into Game 4 with the 2 games to 1 lead the Red Sox enjoyed, as opposed to the 1-2 deficit the Tigers took into Wednesday night regardless of how illogical it may have seemed that the Sox were the team that had the advantage.

That advantage is no longer. Assisted by an uncharacteristically wild Red Sox starting pitcher Jake Peavy and some shoddy Boston defense, Detroit's revamped lineup rolled to a 7-0 lead before the Tigers coasted to a 7-3 victory, evening the ALCS at two games apiece.
 
And suddenly it looks like the Red Sox are the team in trouble.
 
Prior to Wednesday night, Boston was 12-for-90 with a .228 on-base percentage and a .222 slugging percentage in the ALCS. Stymied by the sensational threesome of Anibal Sanchez, Max Scherzer and Justin Verlander, it had made at least 14 outs before getting its first hit in the first three contests, and had gone 6-for-69 with 35 strikeouts against Detroit's starting pitchers.
 
The Sox were a bit better against Detroit's Game 4 starter, Doug Fister, touching him up for eight hits over six innings, but their only run off him came after the Tigers had taken that 7-0 lead. And while Boston wound up totaling 12 hits, it was just 2-for-16 with runners in scoring position.
 
David Ortiz, the hero of Game 2, went 0-for-5 and stranded five runners, his ALCS average dropping to .067, with Sunday's game-tying grand slam remaining his only hit in the series.

While Ortiz's average is the worst among regulars in the series, he's hardly alone, particularly among the Sox.
 
Entering Wednesday, every Boston hitter who'd started at least two games had struck out at least three times, and the two players who'd started just once each had struck out twice. In fact, before Stephen Drew came through with a single to lead off the eighth inning of Game 3, the Red Sox had put the ball in play 41 times over the course of the series — and struck out 42 times. Then they struck out a 43rd time before that tilt was finished.

Through the series' initial 27 innings, Boston had scored runs in only four frames. It had a hit in only eight frames. It had put the leadoff man aboard only thrice, and been retired in order 11 times. It had only 15 at-bats with runners in scoring position, which is two fewer than it had after the first Division Series game against Tampa Bay. And, thus, third base coach Brian Butterfield had been forced to make just two decisions from his post en route to the plate, both of them coming in Game 2: he waved home Shane Victorino in the sixth, then held Will Middlebrooks in the eighth.

Individually, Gomes was tied with Dustin Pedroia for the team lead in hits, with two, and neither of those had left the infield — while Gomes (.286) and Nava (1-for-3, .333) entered Wednesday as the only two players who were batting better than .200. Only Pedroia, David Ortiz and Jacoby Ellsbury had reached base more than twice.

Yet the Sox were two wins from the American League pennant and a berth in the World Series, while the Tigers were on the verge of panic. Part of that was a product of the Sox getting quality hits, even in the absence of quantity — Ortiz and Mike Napoli were a combined 2-for-18 at the heart of Boston's order, but those hits were Ortiz's much-celebrated slam and Napoli's home run in Tuesday's 1-0 win. The one hit in Jarrod Saltamacchia's 1-for-8, meanwhile, was good for a walk-off single in Game 2.

So it was that for all its struggles, Boston actually had managed to outscore Detroit in the series, 7-6.

"We scored one run and no runs in two of the games," Leyland said before Game 5. "It certainly can't hurt. We're going to take a shot."

They took their shot, and they connected, sending the Red Sox reeling -- at least temporarily.
Game 5 is Thursday night, the host Tigers' Anibal Sanchez facing the Sox' Jon Lester in a rematch of a Game 1 pairing that resulted in a 1-0 Detroit victory. Game 6 will be in Boston Thursday. Whether the Red Sox find their missing bats before than remains to be seen.

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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