'Stubborn' Red Sox hitters winning the waiting game
Despite anemic batting average in ALCS, Boston's patience at plate paying off
DETROIT -- Red Sox hitters are batting a collective .087 (6-for-69) against the Tigers' starters in this American League Championship Series.
Yet they have a 2-1 series lead.
They've been no-hit into the ninth, the sixth and the fifth innings, respectively, of Games 1, 2 and 3.
Yet they have a 2-1 series lead.
They've scored a grand total of seven runs over three games and they've struck out in an absurd 42.5 percent of their plate appearances.
Yet they have a 2-1 series lead.
There is such a thing as the ends justifying the means, you know, and Boston's preposterously patient approach, which paid off in the form of one full-count swing from Mike Napoli in Tuesday's 1-0 victory over Justin Verlander and the Tigers in Game 3 at Comerica Park, does just that.
It's an approach that might be drawing criticism in some corners, especially among those tallying the average time of game, but you can hardly argue with the overall result, even against a Detroit pitching staff with the stuff and spunk to be aggressive in and around the zone.
"From Day One, that's the Red Sox," hitting coach Greg Colbrunn said. "We work at-bats, we grind out at-bats, we get a good pitch to hit."
Now, obviously, the Red Sox would not have maximized the value of their seven runs scored if not for some inordinately good pitching from their own staff. Jon Lester lived up to his ace billing in Game 1, the Koji Uehara-led bullpen has been nails throughout, and, most impressive of all, John Lackey matched a locked-in Justin Verlander on Tuesday afternoon in what was, without question, his greatest performance in a Boston uniform.
An average effort from the arms against this potent Tigers lineup would cast an entirely different light on the less-is-more mantra upon which the Red Sox hitters operate. No question about that.
Still, the perfect illustration of the value of what the Boston bats are doing came in Game 3's lone run. Perhaps it's only fitting that Napoli, whose lineup spot was a subject of great debate, was the one who delivered it, for he is the poster boy for Boston's prowess in the patience department.
Nobody saw more pitches per plate appearance this season than Napoli (4.58), and only three guys -- Joey Votto, Shin-Soo Choo and Mike Trout -- had more plate appearances that reached a 3-2 count.
It was only natural, then, that with the game in a scoreless tie with one out and none on in the seventh and Verlander's pitch count creeping into the triple digits, Napoli worked the count full. In that moment, the possibilities were quite a bit more complicated than they are with most pitchers. In most instances, you can look for a fastball in the vicinity of the zone on the payoff pitch, but Verlander has such pinpoint command of his secondary stuff that there's really no telling which direction he'll go.
"I felt like I had good control over all my pitches tonight," Verlander would say later. "So pretty much whatever I picked, I felt like I would be able to execute it to the point of not walking them."
Verlander had watched Napoli take two sliders -- close ones -- in succession for balls, and he didn't feel Napoli was seeing the fastball quite as well. So he challenged him, but the pitch was just a little bit up and over the middle, and Napoli launched it just beyond the left-center-field wall.
"I see a lot of pitches throughout the season," Napoli said. "Every at-bat, I try to see a lot of pitches. I feel like the more pitches I see, the better for me, the more I get involved into that at-bat, the more I can see stuff. But it doesn't mean I'm not going to be aggressive early in the count. I'm just trying to get a pitch that I can handle and drive somewhere."
Colbrunn kept coming back to one word when describing Napoli.
"Stubborn," he said. "That's the beauty of him. He sticks to his approach. He'll take those borderline pitches away. He knows his strike zone as well as anybody. It's not easy to do."
The Red Sox, as a whole, have been really stubborn this LCS, and it hasn't always been easy to watch. Anibal Sanchez, Max Scherzer and Verlander cruised through the early innings in the first three games of this series. Game 4 starter Doug Fister, who is more prone to getting his outs via the ground ball than the swing-and-miss, might present decidedly different outcomes in the early at-bats, but the approach isn't expected to vary one iota.
"As hitters," Colbrunn said, "you've got to go up there and trust your approach."
That means an unusual willingness to watch the first pitch pass by, even if it's a strike. The Red Sox swung at just 20.7 percent of first pitches offered up by Verlander in this one, right in line with their 20.4 first-pitch swing percentage this season. The Tigers, on the other hand, were quite a bit more jumpy, swinging at 37.5 percent of first pitches offered by Lackey, a sharp increase over their season average of 28.2 and postseason average of 29.3.
None of these numbers tell the full story, of course, but in a best-of-seven series with a run differential of just one through three games, the contrast in first-pitch approaches is an interesting bit of statistical minutiae.
Really, Game 3 came down to three at-bats -- the Napoli homer and the strikeouts by Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder with the tying run at third and go-ahead run at first in the eighth.
If you needed a reminder, after he hit two homers in three games, that Miguel Cabrera is not the Miguel Cabrera we've come to know and love, then the strikeout against Junichi Tazawa provided it. Tazawa threw Cabrera four balls. Unfortunately for the Tigers, Miggy swung through three of them -- all high and outside -- and you could tell his abdominal-area injury is affecting not only his ability to get to those pitches (he's all arm-and-hand reaction right now) but encouraging a willingness to chase in the clutch, which is certainly unusual for him. Fielder followed by striking out against Koji Uehara on three pitches.
"It's playoff pitching," Fielder said.
Indeed, the mistakes are few and far between. But in exhausting Scherzer after seven innings in Game 2 and getting into the Detroit bullpen (a known point of susceptibility) and in capitalizing on one of the very, very few moments of Verlander vulnerability in Game 3, the Red Sox have maximized the Tigers' mistakes.
Their stubbornness has been a strength.
And they have a 2-1 series lead.