BOSTON — In the fifth inning of a game Sept. 3 at Fenway Park, all the elements that will be on display when the American League Championship Series begins mixed together, a perfect preview five weeks out. The Detroit Tigers have baseball’s best starting rotation, and on the mound that night stood Max Scherzer, the right-hander who seems certain to be on his way to the Cy Young award. The Boston Red Sox have baseball’s best offense, and into the batter’s box stepped Jonny Gomes, like so many of his teammates a cog, not a star.
Scherzer had just started the inning with a strikeout. He began Gomes with a 93-mph fastball, in there for a strike. Here, then, began a sequence that could be repeated over the next four or five or — god willing — seven games as the Red Sox’s lineup, deep and relentless and patient, tries to outfox the Tigers’ rotation, aggressive and powerful and dominant.
“That’s what you want,” Scherzer said Friday. “The best going against the best.”
Boston arrives in its first ALCS since 2008 and hosts Game 1 on Saturday night, in large part because it methodically wears down pitchers, posting the game’s best on-base percentage, seeing more pitches than any team in baseball, outscoring the next-most prolific team by 57 runs on the year. Detroit returns to this stage for the third year in a row because its rotation refuses to succumb to such an approach, because Scherzer, Justin Verlander, Anibal Sanchez and Doug Fister pitched more innings than any starting unit in baseball, allowed opponents the lowest OBP in the American League and posted the best ERA.
“We’re going to have our hands full,” Red Sox second baseman Dustin Pedroia said of Detroit’s starting staff. Not long afterward, Verlander countered on Pedroia and company.
“They’re relentless,” he said. “You can’t take any breathers. There’s no sigh. There’s no break.”
So go back to that early September night to get an idea of how each side works. That series at Fenway pitted two teams that clearly had this stage in sight, even back then, and it began the previous night with seven shutout innings from Fister in what became a 3-0 Detroit victory. This would seem to be a singular achievement because neither Verlander nor Scherzer nor Sanchez — who will start Game 1 — did anything but watch from the dugout. But the Tigers tell it differently.
“We definitely feed off of one another,” Verlander said. “I’ve always been of the opinion that pitching’s contagious, just like hitting is. We’re all very competitive guys. One guy goes out there and does great, you want to go out there and do better. That’s just the nature of it.”
When Scherzer took the mound the next night, he was looking for his 20th victory of the season. Through four innings, he had allowed only a single to Gomes, and the Tigers led 1-0. He opened the fifth facing Mike Carp, a part-time outfielder who also fits right in to what the Red Sox try to accomplish offensively. Scherzer got ahead of Carp 1-2 and then tried to get him to chase a fastball out of the strike zone. Carp laid off. Scherzer came with another 95-mph heater, and Carp fouled it off. At 2-2, Scherzer went to his slider. Again, Carp refused to offer. Ball three.
By the time Scherzer reached back for another fastball — and finally got Carp to swing through it — he had thrown seven pitches, and the inning was just a batter old.
“It’s mentally fatiguing at times because you keep having to execute pitch after pitch after pitch,” Scherzer said Friday. “You get a team like this, they can grind you out, foul you off, keep waiting for their pitch. It’s tough mentally to keep doing that every single time in every single at-bat.”
Gomes then stepped in. He is in his first season in Boston, but he has played in the postseason with Cincinnati and Oakland.
“This team is probably the best team I’ve been on making in-game adjustments,” Gomes said. “You couldn’t go nine innings against this team throwing down-and-out for a strike… If you could do a baseball IQ, if you could rate that, I mean, (this team is) truly off the charts with baseball knowledge and what’s going on in there.”
Scherzer went to work, and so did Gomes, laying off the first-pitch strike. Scherzer worked to get ahead 1-2 and then threw a change-up. Gomes fouled it off.
The best hitters and lineups, Verlander said, “foul off the bastard pitch. Nobody’s going to hit that pitch, but they find a way to foul it off and then get another chance. Then you make a mistake, and they get a base hit.”
With that, Scherzer went for a 1-2 slider, and Gomes singled to center. Shortstop Stephen Drew followed with a double to center to put runners at second and third. Scherzer countered against catcher David Ross, throwing three straight fastballs — 95 mph, 97 mph and 97 mph.
“If you can stay very aggressive in the strike zone,” Verlander said, “obviously they can’t stand there and take three strikes down the middle.”
Ross swung through all three. Two outs.
“But if you don’t execute your pitches,” Scherzer said, “they make you pay up and down the lineup.”
And it’s not as if the Red Sox will lay off pitches just because they’re early in the at-bat. “I wouldn’t feel too comfortable throwing a few guys in this lineup an 0-0 fastball down the middle trying to get ahead,” Gomes said.
So Scherzer began the next hitter, third baseman Will Middlebrooks, with a slider, and Middlebrooks jumped on it, grounding it up the middle for a two-run single. Scherzer went on to complete seven innings, striking out eight and allowing just five hits. But the final score: Boston 2, Detroit 1.
It was only one inning in one comparatively insignificant game, nothing like the stage that awaits these teams now. But in it, the essence of these two teams — and their overwhelming strengths — came through. Now at the most important time of year, more of the same awaits.