DETROIT — Maybe this was just what this American League Championship Series needed, a night off from its frazzled self. The first three games deepened wrinkles, grayed hairs and roiled stomachs. So for a night, at least, unclench your teeth, because the Detroit Tigers unveiled a new-look lineup, kept their starting pitching about the same, and finally offered something unheard of to this point: a blowout.
What the Tigers accomplished Wednesday night in their 7-3 victory over the Boston Red Sox in Game 4 at Comerica Park was multifaceted. Primarily, they evened the series at two games apiece, assuring that it will return to Boston over the weekend. But they also assured that the vestiges of two painful losses — a blown five-run lead in Game 2, a one-swing-provides-the-difference 1-0 decision in Game 3 — were erased. The series can now continue without questions of their ability to overcome such catastrophes.
Moreover, in finally providing a laugher in a series that had featured three one-run games, they extended their most important thread: The Tigers have now made a full trip through their postseason rotation, and the Red Sox — say it again, baseball’s best offensive team during the regular season — have no answers for it.
So put aside, for a moment, the fact that Manager Jim Leyland dropped the flailing Austin Jackson from the leadoff spot to eighth — and got him to drive in the game’s first run and reach base four times. Forget that the juggling left Torii Hunter and Miguel Cabrera — veterans, all-stars, creatures of habit — in decidedly unfamiliar spots, leading off and hitting second, respectively.
Rather, concentrate on what right-hander Doug Fister — fourth in the Tigers’ rotation in reputation and talent — continued. Fister threw six efficient, effective innings. He was not as powerful as Justin Verlander, not as sharp as Max Scherzer, not as unhittable as Anibal Sanchez. But he allowed just one run, and that didn’t come till the sixth, by which time the Tigers were already up 7-0.
Now throw Fister’s effort in with those of his harder-throwing, more ballyhooed teammates, and it fits in nicely. In 27 innings, the Red Sox have three runs off Detroit’s rotation, good for a 1.00 ERA, and 42 strikeouts, more than half their outs. The Red Sox got to Fister for eight hits, but six were singles, and that lifted their average against the Tigers’ starters to .146.
Fister’s task, too, was made easier by the unusual output from the Tigers’ offense, which, by the fourth inning, had scored more runs than it did in the previous three games combined.
In the box score, the “5” the Tigers hung in the second inning looks like a genuine breakout. Hunter’s two-out, two-run double served as the big blow, and it left him standing at second clapping and screaming into the home dugout, relief all around. Cabrera followed with a run-scoring single, and Comerica relaxed. The Tigers were hitting again.
But an examination of the frame shows how the damage could easily have been limited, and a blowout might have been a ballgame. Even after Boston right-hander Jake Peavy — who was charged with all seven runs — gave up a single and two walks to load the bases, he faced Jackson with one out. This was the same Jackson who left Leyland little choice but to drop him from the leadoff spot because he had been, simply, horrendous offensively, 3 for 33 in the postseason, with an astonishing 18 strikeouts.
This was the perfect person for Peavy to use as an escape hatch. Instead, he threw him four straight balls, an unforgivable walk that got the Tigers their first run. Jackson went on to go 2 for 2 with two RBI and two walks.
Then came Boston’s next mistake, from an unlikely source. With the bases still plugged, Detroit shortstop Jose Iglesias — acquired from Boston in July’s three-team trade that sent Peavy to the Red Sox — scorched a grounder right at Red Sox second baseman Dustin Pedroia. Iglesias is fast, but the ball was hit well enough that a double play seemed probable.
And then Pedroia, for an instant, couldn’t find it at his feet. He tracked it down in time to get the out at second, but Iglesias beat the relay. A run scored, and — more importantly — the inning was alive. Hunter’s double and Cabrera’s single followed immediately, and Fister had a 5-0 lead.
So for one night, breathe. Game 5 is Thursday night, and Jon Lester and Sanchez — who authored Detroit’s 1-0 victory in Game 1 — will oppose each other again. The thrills can be saved for another day.