DETROIT — When Mike Napoli came to the plate in the top of the seventh inning Tuesday afternoon, it might have been time to go grab a hot dog. Justin Verlander, the Detroit Tigers’ longtime ace, stood on the mound in complete control of the baseball he held in his right hand. He had allowed two measly singles to that point and struck out eight Boston Red Sox. It was his park, his time.
But as David Ortiz, the Red Sox’ designated hitter/philosopher, would say later, “These games are no joke.” Indeed, there is no time to get a hot dog, because what if you miss the moment it all changes?
Napoli, in a miserable 2-for-19 postseason slump — and who had struck out in each of his six at-bats in the American League Championship Series, including twice Tuesday — obliterated a 3-2 fastball from Verlander, the swing and the moment that delivered a 1-0 victory for the Red Sox in Game 3. John Lackey, who has been more likely to be booed than cheered in Boston, was every bit Verlander’s equal with 62 / 3 scoreless innings, and the magical makeshift bullpen duo of Junichi Tazawa and Koji Uehara took a mortar and pestle to the Tigers’ two most feared hitters when the game teetered on the brink.
Altogether, that provided the Red Sox with a two-games-to-one lead in the series, an advantage that feels sun-kissed given the performance of the Detroit rotation. Through three games, the Red Sox essentially have two monstrous change-the-season swings — Ortiz’s game-tying grand slam in the eighth inning of Game 2, and Napoli’s unlikely shot Tuesday — that have put them up. The Tigers’ starters thus far — Verlander, Anibal Sanchez and Max Scherzer — have allowed six hits and two runs for a 0.86 ERA, all while striking out 35 Red Sox.
So Wednesday night, when Game 4 comes on? Don’t move, because the line is so fine, the series could change again in a blink.
“Nobody’s giving in,” Ortiz said. “Not our pitchers. Not their pitchers. They’re making nasty pitches in hitter’s counts.”
Take, then, Napoli’s at-bat as an example. To that point, Lackey was dealing every bit as well as Verlander, allowing just three hits, striking out eight. Verlander didn’t allow a hit until the fifth, and he got Napoli to swing through a fastball to get ahead 1-2, a point when he’s normally in control. Here, he went with a slider, purposely out of the zone.
Napoli, though, knew that his first homer of his career — indeed, in his first at-bat — came off Verlander. A veteran now, he is calm, and he laid off the slider. Verlander went back to the slider, an even better pitch, more difficult to resist. Napoli spit on it.
“Threw me four sliders, which he’s never done to me before,” Napoli said. “But I just kept on going at it.”
So with the count full, the debate for catcher Alex Avila: Go back to the slider, or turn to the fastball? Verlander, though, wanted the heater. “I decided to challenge him,” Verlander said.
His 100th pitch of the day barreled in at 96 mph. But it was a little higher than he would have liked, and got a little more of the plate. One mistake, all day. Napoli crushed it, depositing it into the Boston bullpen.
“That was sick, huh?” Boston second baseman Dustin Pedroia said. “What a swing.”
From there, it was left to Lackey and the Red Sox relief corps. In the bottom of the seventh, after he allowed a one-out single to Victor Martinez, Lackey retired Jhonny Peralta on a flyball, and here came Manager John Farrell. Even through his scraggly beard, the disbelief on Lackey’s face showed. “You’ve got to be [kidding] me,” he said to Farrell as the manager called for reliever Craig Breslow, and he reluctantly walked off the mound.
“If he comes out of there and he’s happy about it,” said Jon Lester, Boston’s Game 1 starter, “then he’s not the guy we want on the mound.”
Breslow issued a walk, but then got Omar Infante on a fielder’s choice. But the key moment came an inning later, when Breslow walked the ice-cold Austin Jackson with one out. Tazawa then came on and allowed a single to Torii Hunter to put runners on the corners with one out for — wait for it — Triple Crown winner Miguel Cabrera.
“You’re sitting there just going, ‘God, just hit a groundball, hit it at somebody,’ ” Lester said. “Do something.”
What Tazawa did was astonishing. “He just kind of overmatched him,” Lester said, and he got Cabrera to chase a 1-2 fastball out of the zone, the biggest out of the game. Uehara then came on for what would become a four-out save. His first task: Prince Fielder. His response: three pitches, the last in the dirt, and three strikes.
“It’s like he’s playing on a different planet right now,” Lester said of Uehara.
These games, too, seem to exist on some parallel plane. Each team has a 1-0 victory. All three have been decided by one run. What might Wednesday bring?
“If you can’t appreciate this,” Verlander said, “you can’t appreciate baseball.”