BOSTON - With Game 6 looming, Fenway Park a quiet calm before a New England crowd fills it and creates a raucous storm, we're down to the nitty-gritty in this American League Championship Series.
The hometown Red Sox, leading 3-2 and a win away from a trip to the World Series; the visiting Tigers, facing the daunting task of having to win twice on the road to wrest away the American League pennant. The prospect seems doable, however, considering presumptive Cy Young award winner Max Scherzer is due to hurl Game 6 and, should Detroit win, former Cy Young award Justin Verlander is scheduled to pitch Game 7.
These teams are grinding. A series which started on the strength of pitching has morphed into an offensive battle. The Red Sox are hitting only .206 as a group in the ALCS, the Tigers .259, but the two clubs have combined for 41 hits in the last two games after teaming up for only 35 total in the first three.
The Tigers are hurting, namely their star third baseman Miguel Cabrera and catcher Alex Avila.
Cabrera, sapped of his ability to drive the ball to the opposite field by a leg injury which also has further depleted his already limited range at third base, will continue to chug along as best he can. Cabrera is 5-16 (.313) in the series but his lone extra base hit is a Game 2 home run, more the product of a mistake curveball hung by Clay Buchholz than Cabrera's ability to get his damaged lower body to leverage his swing through the baseball.
There has been next to no discussion, except in whispers, to removing Cabrera from the starting lineup. Manager Jim Leyland couldn't do it, he'd be skewered publicly if he did and the Tigers were eliminated, and from a logistical standpoint his replacement options are limited. Hernan Perez? That's not happening. What about some combination of Jhonny Peralta and Jose Iglesias on the left side of the infield and the insertion of Andy Dirks or Don Kelly in left field? Sounds like a better plan but, really, despite Cabrera's Game 5 base running foible, costly error and poor at-bats, a Miggy at 60-percent (or less) remains the best option. If he's willing and able to play, play him.
"It kind of breaks your heart, to be honest with you," said Leyland of the state of Cabrera's health. "He's tough as nails. I have so much respect for him. Everybody is conscientious these days about people earning their money. You talk about somebody who is earning their money, this guy feels like he owes it to the Detroit Tigers and our fans to be out there."
As for Avila, he's reaffirming the notion that catchers play one of the most difficult positions in pro sports. He's fouled a pitch off his right toes, strained the patellar tendon in his left knee in a home plate collision with Boston's David Ross, had Ross foul a pitch squarely off his face mask, and left a game early dazed and in pain, all in the last 72 hours.
Avila is willing and able to play and he's the man with whom Leyland must go.
"The main thing from a manager's standpoint, the one thing you don't want to happen is when you're dealing with an injury - and I think Alex is fine now - the one thing you don't want to happen is start the game and take him out in the second or third inning," said Leyland. "That's the one thing I try to guard against as a manager."
Meantime, Prince Fielder has a hit in four of the five games so far. It feels, however, as if he's done nothing outside of doubling and then scoring in the sixth inning of Game 2. The plate approach is being questioned, even Leyland's referred to Fielder's attempts to slap the ball to left field, but Fielder's one of the horses which brought Leyland to the rodeo. He's not coming out of the lineup and nor should he.
The only lineup move of significance Leyland's made has been to drop Austin Jackson from the lead off spot to the eight-hole.
The Tigers bullpen has allowed seven earned runs in 11 innings pitched against the Red Sox (5.72 ERA) but the damage has been limited to just two of the games, although one is most certainly memorable. Five Detroit relievers each allowed a run in Game 2, the "Big Papi Grand Slam" game, and Phil Coke and Joaquin Benoit each got nicked for a run allowed in the Tigers' Game 4 win. Regardless of the numbers and how you break them down to determine the true extent of their ugliness, the relievers Leyland has are the guys he'll have to live with - maybe die with - the rest of the way. No doubt Leyland is hoping Scherzer and Verlander, if necessary, can get him very deep into these remaining games.
Boston, despite hitting a paltry .150 in the first three games, has an opportunity to book its third appearance in the World Series since 2004. The bats have awakened, with 22 hits combined in Games 4 and 5. The catalyst hasn't been David Ortiz or Dustin Pedroia but Mike Napoli, whose seventh inning home run off Justin Verlander in Game 3 accounted for that game's only run. It also propelled Napoli, previously slumping, and including that home run he's since 6-10 with two home runs and a double.
"As we talked about the other day, when it was thought because of his struggles or the way things were going in this postseason do you look to sit him and that was never contemplated, other than Game 2 where we thought there might be a better matchup with Mike Carp and the left hander," said Red Sox manager John Farrell. "When he gets into that upswing he can carry us and not just because of the home run he hit (Thursday) night, you see the other things he's very capable of doing."
Farrell has found magic in the back end of his bullpen. Koji Uehara has four saves in as many playoff opportunities but it's been the work of Junichi Tazawa (2 1/3 innings - one run) and Craig Breslow (2 1/3 innings - no runs) that has solidified Farrell's late game approach.
The key has been Uehara.
"He's not doing something this year that is so out of the norm for him," said Farrell. "He's been a very successful pitcher, whether it's been in Japan or here. But the fact he's the closer here, he's gained the notoriety that he deserves."
Farrell, by the way, deserves credit for the handling of his pitching in Game 5. Sensing that Jon Lester was losing control of his outing, a 4-0 lead had been trimmed to 4-2 with one on and one out in the sixth inning, Farrell called for Tazawa and initiated his plan, which asked for Tazawa, Breslow and Uehara to get the final 11 outs of the game. The plan worked and even if it hadn't, it would have been unfair – flat out wrong – to question Farrell's strategy.
Farrell also deleted the slumping Will Middlebrooks from the starting lineup and replaced him with 21-year-old Xander Bogaerts, who's responded with two doubles, two runs scored and a walk (2-4) in five plate appearances.
However this series concludes, the winner will be lauded and the loser will be second-guessed.
What we've seen in this series, for the most part, is great pitching and good baseball.
The best could be yet to come.