A funny thing has happened in the American League Championship Series that doesn't get talked about enough: Boston’s pitching staff is really, really good.
The latest evidence of that came in Detroit on Tuesday with John Lackey matching Justin Verlander pitch for pitch over 6.2 shutout innings before giving way to the dynamic bullpen trio of Craig Breslow, Junichi Tazawa and Koji Uehara.
The Red Sox won the game 1-0 behind Lackey's dazzling effort and the power of Mike Napoli's bat. Napoli made his first hit of the 2013 ALCS count, driving a Verlander pitch over the wall in left center with one out in the seventh inning.
All the talk leading up to and during this series revolved around Detroit's starting pitching against Boston's offense. It was completely warranted because the Tigers led all of baseball with 981 strikeouts from their starters, 102 more than second-place Cleveland.
The Red Sox had the best offense in baseball, leading the league with 853 runs and .795 OPS. When you have a battle between two Goliaths, it is only natural to focus on that. It also didn't hurt that Detroit starters Anibal Sanchez and Max Scherzer threw 13 innings with just two hits and one run allowed with 25 strikeouts in the first two games of the series.
A lot of attention was devoted to figuring out what happened to the Red Sox offense, yet no one paid as much attention to what the pitching staff has been doing. Clay Buchholz had a bad sixth inning in Game 2, no one can deny that. But aside from one blip on the radar, the Tigers have scored just two runs in the other 26 innings.
We tend to overlook Boston's pitching because the offense is so good and overall there was nothing that jumped out at you about this bunch. Here are the regular season totals and ranks for the Red Sox pitching staff this season.
There certainly are individual pieces you can single out. The wizardry of Koji Uehara immediately springs to mind, but Boston’s best ranking in any major category is seventh in strikeouts.
What this ALCS has shown us, what we should have seen before, is the Red Sox boast a really strong, deep pitching staff capable of beating any team in baseball.
What regular season numbers do is paint a picture of everything that happened in 162 games. That's not what you are going to get in the playoffs.
Opposing teams are only going to see the best starters and relievers their opponent has in October, unless there is a game so out of control a manager can afford to use someone in mop-up duty.
The Red Sox top three starters are, in no particular order, Lackey, Clay Buchholz and Jon Lester. Lester pitched like a star in the second half of the season after struggling with a 4.58 ERA in the first half. The southpaw had a 2.57 ERA in 87.2 innings after the All-Star break and 74-22 strikeout-to-walk ratio.
Being the ace of a staff carries certain responsibilities, one that Lester wasn't meeting since 2011. He has regained that elite form, with the results showing through 14 innings this postseason with nine hits, four walks, three earned runs and 11 strikeouts.
Lester may not have had a no-hitter going in Game 1 of the ALCS, but the only run he gave up came on a blooper from Jhonny Peralta in the sixth inning. He wasn't getting smacked around in that game, just trying to take care of business long enough for the offense to get going.
Buchholz looked like a Cy Young contender when he was healthy enough to pitch this season. His 1.74 ERA was the best in baseball among pitchers with at least 100 innings. (He didn't have enough innings to qualify for the ERA title.)
After being a pariah during his first three years with the Red Sox, including a missed year in 2012 due to Tommy John surgery, Lackey looks like he did during his days with the Angels. He did stumble in the second half, though, with a 4.35 ERA and 12 home runs allowed in 89 innings pitched.
Yet whatever plagued him before is gone now. Lackey went into Detroit, in front of a raucous crowd waiting for him to make a mistake against Verlander, and racked up eight strikeouts in 6.2 innings while giving up just four hits and no walks.
Then there is the performance of the bullpen. The Red Sox don't have the deepest stable of relief pitchers in baseball. Far from it. They lost three key pieces— Andrew Miller, Andrew Bailey and Joel Hanrahan—for the season earlier in the year and left a lot of questions in their wake.
Manager John Farrell put together a makeshift group of relievers, landing on Uehara, Breslow and Tazawa for late-inning, high-leverage situations. All three of them played huge roles in the Game 3 victory.
Breslow relieved Lackey in the seventh inning and got Omar Infante to ground into a force out after walking Alex Avila to put runners on first and second with two outs.
Tazawa came on in the eighth inning after Breslow struck out Jose Iglesias and walked Austin Jackson. Torii Hunter singled to right field, bringing Miguel Cabrera to the plate with runners on first and third.
Tazawa struck Cabrera out with mid-90s fastballs on the outer half of the plate, where Miggy isn't capable of driving them as well as he normally would because of his injured groin.
Uehara came in to strike out Prince Fielder with that patented split-finger fastball. He then got out of the ninth inning relatively unscathed, inducing a double play ball from Peralta before striking out Alex Avila.
That's nothing new for Uehara, who has been untouchable all year with 33 hits and nine walks allowed against 101 strikeouts in 74.1 innings. Tazawa has rebounded from a dreadful September when he had a 6.48 ERA to throw 3.1 scoreless innings this postseason. Breslow doesn't overpower hitters with stuff, yet has managed to walk a tightrope all season without missing a lot of bats.
The Red Sox have taken control of this series because of their pitching staff. In fact, aside from David Ortiz's grand slam in the eighth inning of Game 2, the Red Sox still haven't done much of anything with their bats.
Verlander held the offense to four hits over eight innings and struck out 10, bringing Boston's total through three games to a staggering 43 (including Jose Veras' strikeout of Dustin Pedroia after relieving Verlander).
There will be no shortage of great pitchers the Red Sox face in this series. They have another one on Wednesday when Doug Fister takes the mound.
However, the challenge isn't whether the Red Sox or Tigers powerful lineups are finally going to have the breakout game everyone is waiting for. It's figuring out which pitching staff will be the first to blink.
This series is far from over, but the Red Sox should feel a lot better about where things are at because they have taken the best punch the Tigers have to offer and come out with a 2-1 lead. That's a testament to the depth of this pitching staff and the job they have done through three games.
While the Tigers' starters can generate all the headlines, the Red Sox are comfortable sitting back and letting their performance do the talking.
So far, so good.
Note: All stats courtesy of Baseball Reference unless otherwise noted.
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