DETROIT — The task before the Boston Red Sox relievers was both plain and arduous. It came on a cool, damp night at Comerica Park, where 42,669 waved towels to distract and annoy. It came against a formidable lineup, with danger all around. And it was this: Get 11 outs, race for the plane, and take a lead in the American League Championship Series back to Boston.
There were other contributors in what became a 4-3 victory over the Detroit Tigers in Thursday’s Game 5. Mike Napoli’s massive home run seemed to, at least momentarily, wake a moribund offense, and left-hander Jon Lester did yeoman’s work in holding the Tigers’ lineup down through most of his outing, which lasted only until the sixth inning.
But without Junichi Tazawa, Craig Breslow and the unflagging Koji Uehara — right now, the best closer in the game — what might that flight have been like for the Red Sox? Those three retired the last eight men they faced, ensuring the top of the Detroit lineup wouldn’t reappear in the ninth. They induced a pair of double-play balls — one off the bat of Austin Jackson, who had reached base six consecutive times, the next off the bat of Miguel Cabrera, Earth’s best hitter — when the situation looked particularly dicey.
And they finished it with Uehara, who began the season as a veteran setup guy, one with 14 saves in his major league career. Thursday night, he got the final five outs for his fourth save of this postseason, his 25th overall.
“It’s just nice to know you have an ace in the hole back there, and you have a lot of confidence in him,” catcher David Ross said. “And he has a lot of confidence. I’ve caught a lot of closers in my career, and he’s right up there with the best.”
With that, tension returned to the series as it left Detroit for the final time. Game 6 is Saturday in Boston, and the Tigers must now win back-to-back games at Fenway Park if they’re to return to the World Series for the second straight year. The Red Sox, with a three-games-to-two lead, must figure out a way to beat either Max Scherzer, the Game 6 starter, or Justin Verlander, who would start Game 7, if they’re to get back to the Series for the first time since 2007.
“We have to win one game,” Tigers Manager Jim Leyland said, “and take it from there.”
The Red Sox are in this position because they did something they hadn’t in any of the previous four games — hit early. Napoli’s homer came leading off the second, a shot so high and so far it announced, with authority, that there would be no more of this waiting. It nestled into a hedge some 460 feet away from home plate. It counted for one run on the scoreboard. It may have meant more for Boston’s psyche.
“I’m confident,” Napoli said.
The Red Sox collected three more hits in the second for two more runs in the second. Napoli, who went 3 for 4, drilled a double off Sanchez in the third, and when he scored on a wild pitch, the Red Sox — who, prior to Thursday, had led at the conclusion of four of the series’ 36 innings, and never by more than a run — had a 4-0 advantage.
But by the time the sixth rolled around, the Tigers had gotten a run back on Cabrera’s single, and with one out they had men on first and second. Lester, who had thrown just 98 pitches, badly wanted to remain in the game. Boston Manager John Farrell strode to the mound anyway, hook in hand. It was 4-1, and 11 outs were needed. Was this a tough decision?
“Not hard at all,” Farrell said.
So in came Tazawa, and he was greeted with Brayan Pena’s RBI single on his first pitch. But he followed by inducing a grounder to third from Jackson, an inning-ending double play. Tazawa then allowed a pair of singles leading off the eighth, and here came Cabrera — hampered, to be sure, by a bad groin, but still Cabrera all the same.
“He’s playing under some really, really tough conditions right now,” Leyland said.
The pressure here, though, was on Tazawa, because at 4-2, Cabrera represented the lead run. The hallmark of this series — pressure, borderline unbearable at times — was back.
“It’s fun in the end, when you know the result,” Lester said. “But when you’re going through it, it’s not fun sitting in that clubhouse.”
With the count 1-0, Tazawa — who struck out Cabrera in a huge spot in Game 3 — came with a 94-mph fastball, and Cabrera rapped it to second baseman Dustin Pedroia. A run scored, but the Red Sox gladly took the two outs, even if they pulled the Tigers to 4-3.
Then it was Breslow’s turn, and he got Prince Fielder to end the seventh and Victor Martinez to start the eighth. And here came Uehara, the Red Sox’ third choice as a closer this season, but the man who may have saved it. To get his five outs — starting with strikeouts of Jhonny Peralta and Omar Infante to close the eighth — he needed 27 pitches. When the final soft, floating pop-up landed in Pedroia’s glove, Uehera’s postseason ERA dropped to 1.13, the bullpen had its 11th out, the Red Sox had their third win, and the series headed back to Boston, tension restored.
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