Three thoughts about the Boston Red Sox’s 1-0 victory over the Detroit Tigers on Tuesday in Game 3 of the American League Championship Series:
1. Lackey’s finest hour
In his pregame news conference, Red Sox right-hander Jake Peavy took a moment to remind reporters that, uh, the guy facing Tigers righty Justin Verlander in Game 3 also was pretty good.
“Johnny’s a stud. John Lackey is a stud,” Peavy said. “And it’s been funny for me to watch all the coverage of the game coming in. I have heard John Lackey’s name mentioned three or four times. Almost like we didn’t have a starter going today.”
Oh, the Red Sox had a starter going, all right. A guy who won Game 7 of the 2002 World Series for the Angels when he was 24. A guy who was the Red Sox’s most consistent rotation member for most of the regular season after missing all of 2012 while recovering from Tommy John surgery.
Lackey, 34, didn’t exactly enter Tuesday’s game on a roll — his ERA in his previous five starts was 5.57, prompting concern among Sox officials that he was wearing down. The Sox, after starting Lackey in Game 2 in the Division Series, pushed him back to Game 3 of the ALCS, enabling him to pitch on nine days’ rest.
Well, something clicked.
On Tuesday, Lackey unleashed his masterpiece.
He outpitched Verlander, working 6-2/3 shutout innings. He escaped unscathed after allowing a leadoff double by Jhonny Peralta in the fifth. He finished with eight strikeouts, a career-high for him in 14 postseason starts.
It was a pitching clinic, a 12-year veteran at his most savvy. After the first three Tigers hitters swung at the first pitch, Lackey immediately adjusted, making greater use of his curveball. He threw 19 curves among his 97 pitches (19.6 percent), according to Brooksbaseball.net. During the regular season, he used his curve only 10.1 percent of the time.
Nothing fazed Lackey on this day, not a 17-minute delay because of a power outage, not his 4.48 ERA on the road during the regular season, compared with 2.47 at home.
If you saw my postgame interview with him on "FOX Sports Live," you learned that Lackey wasn’t slighted by all the attention on Verlander and doesn’t view his comeback as redemption from his participation in the fried-chicken-and-beer episode at the end of 2011 season. He sees things in more simple terms, always will.
This is one of the game’s fiercest competitors, someone who takes “angry pills” on the day he pitches, according to Peavy. True to form, Lackey fought being removed from the game with one on and two out in the seventh, telling manager John Farrell, “You’ve got to be f—— kidding me!” But that moment was an exception. Peavy, an excitable sort himself, said he was struck by Lackey’s composure.
Naturally, Peavy couldn’t help himself afterward, talking up Lackey again, telling reporters, “It just amazes me that somebody with his resume and the back of his baseball card gets overlooked in a game like this.” But Peavy acknowledged that Lackey did not care one whit about being overshadowed by Verlander.
“In talking to John, it’s about the guys in this room,” Peavy said. “He’s so locked in. He wants to be a world champion again.”
2. Verlander’s lone miscue
As Verlander entered the Tigers’ dugout at the end of the seventh inning, pitching coach Jeff Jones asked him if he was OK. Verlander, who had thrown 112 pitches to that point and just allowed his only run on a homer by Mike Napoli, blew right by Jones without saying a word.
Moments later, during “God Bless America,” Verlander stood fidgeting in the dugout, visibly upset. At one point, after the song was over, he shouted an expletive. But he gathered himself and returned to form in the eighth, preventing Stephen Drew from advancing after Drew reached second with none out on a single and error by right fielder Torii Hunter.
Verlander’s overall performance was brilliant — eight innings, one run, 10 strikeouts, one walk. Verlander did not allow a hit until Jonny Gomes’ single with two outs in the fifth. And while some might question why he threw a fastball to Napoli on 3-2 — a 96-mph fastball, mind you — Verlander had a perfectly reasonable explanation.
“I felt like he hadn’t seen the fastball very well today and he took those two sliders before that pitch. The second one I threw was a really good slider that he didn’t chase. So, 3-2 there,” said Verlander, who had struck out Napoli on a slider in the second and gotten two swings-and-misses on fastballs in striking him out in the fifth.
“Having faced him a couple of times already, I knew he wasn’t seeing the fastball that great,” Verlander added. "I decided to challenge him. I made a little bit of a mistake. It was a little bit up and over the middle. You have to give him credit.”
Before that at-bat, Napoli had been 0 for 6 with six strikeouts in the ALCS.
3. Where is the Tigers’ offense?
The Tigers, batting .225 with a .648 OPS, actually are outhitting the Red Sox, who are batting .133 with a .450 OPS – and ahem, 43 strikeouts in 90 at-bats. Still, you expect more from Miguel Cabrera, Prince Fielder and Co., much more.
One major problem — leadoff man Austin Jackson, the Tigers’ offensive catalyst, is batting .091 in the postseason with a .264 OPS and 18 strikeouts in 33 at-bats.
Since 2010, the Tigers are 203-85 (.705) in the regular season when Jackson starts and scores a run, 11-4 (.733) in the postseason, according to STATS LLC. When Jackson starts and does not score, the Tigers are 105-151 (.410) in the regular season and 5-12 (.294) in the postseason.
How dire is the current situation?
Manager Jim Leyland said that he is considering replacing Jackson in center field with Don Kelly — yes, Don Kelly, whom the Tigers twice dropped from their 40-man roster in 2012.
“The only thing you could think about would (be to) possibly play Donny in center field. I would think that would be the only move you could think about,” Leyland said. “I thought about that one time in the series. But I’m not really sure that’s the answer. I’ll have to think about that one, sleep on it tonight.”