Published January 13, 2015
(SportsNetwork.com) - If you would have told someone a year ago that the Boston Red Sox would be back in the American League Championship Series this season, you may have been laughed at.
But, one year removed from losing 93 games, that is exactly the position the Red Sox find themselves in, as they kick off the best-of-seven set versus the Detroit Tigers at Fenway Park on Saturday.
Boston is back in this round for the first time since 2008 after upending the Tampa Bay Rays in four games of the ALDS.
Only two teams were worse than Boston in the AL in 2012, leading to the dismissal of manager Bobby Valentine after just one season. So, out with the old and in the new, as the team hired John Farrell away from Toronto to be their new skipper.
All Farrell did was put himself atop most people's AL Manager of the Year ballots, as he guided the Red Sox to a 28-game turnaround and ended the year 97-65, leading the club to its first AL East title since their World Series championship season of 2007.
The 97 wins were also the second most for the team since 1978.
Boston's regular season prowess carried over to the postseason, as it needed only four games to upend the wild card-winning Tampa Bay Rays.
Offensively the Red Sox are still led by 37-year-old designated hitter David Ortiz, who put forth his seventh 30-homer/100-RBI season and hit .309 to boot. Ortiz continued to thrive against the Rays and hit a pair of home runs with three RBI, while batting .385
Boston was criticized for giving outfielder Shane Victorino a 3-year, $39 million deal this offseason, but the Flying Hawaiian was one of the team's top performers this season, hitting .294 with 15 home runs, 61 RBI, 82 runs scored and 21 stolen bases.
Not to mention Victorino has had a penchant for coming up big in the postseason, as he has driven in 33 runs in 50 playoff games. That was the case against the Rays, as he went 6-for-14 with three RBI.
Jacoby Ellsbury was a pleasant surprise for the Red Sox in the ALDS, as he was 9-for-18 in the series with four stolen bases. The soon-to-be free agent had missed most September with a compression fracture in his right foot.
Farrell, of course, was the Red Sox pitching coach under Terry Francona, and his impact was immediately evident, especially among the starting staff which saw their ERA decrease by nearly two runs from the prior season.
Nobody benefited from having Farrell back more than Game 1 starter Jon Lester, who was a miserable 9-14 in 2012, but bounced back to go 15-8 this past season, while pitching to a 3.75 ERA.
Lester gave up two runs in 7 2/3 innings in win over the Rays in the ALDS and has held the opposition to a .199 batting average with 46 strikeouts to 16 walks in 49 2/3 postseason innings.
Including his Game 1 win over the Rays, Lester is 8-2 with a 2.77 ERA in 14 starts since the All-Star break.
Despite missing three months with a sore shoulder Clay Buchholz was still magnificent for the Red Sox, but given how well John Lackey has pitched at Fenway, Farrell may again opt to throw him in Game 2.
Lackey beat the Rays at Fenway in Game 2 of the last series after going 6-3 with a 2.47 ERA in 13 home starts during the regular season.
Should Farrell go that way, then Buchholz will go in Game 3 and Jake Peavy will again follow in the fourth game.
One distinct advantage the Red Sox will have in this series will be in the bullpen where Koji Uehara has emerged as one of the best closers in baseball.
The Japanese right-hander stepped up in the wake of season-ending injuries to both Joel Hanrahan and Andrew Bailey and saved 21 games while pitching to a remarkable 1.09 ERA.
Uehara, whose ERA was the best in the majors of any pitcher with 50 or more innings, also posted a mind-blowing 0.57 walks plus hits per nine innings - the lowest WHIP in baseball history by a pitcher who logged at least 50 innings, surpassing by a considerable margin the 0.61 standard set by Dennis Eckersley in 1989.
He didn't walk a batter over his final 22 appearances and posted a 0.72 in save chances.
Uehara saved two games against the Rays, but also surrendered a game-winning home run to Jose Lobaton in Game 3. Still, that was he only hit he allowed in his three innings of work.
Detroit, meanwhile, is back in this round for the third straight season after a hard-fought five-game win over the Oakland Athletics in the ALDS. Justin Verlander flirted with a no-hitter in the clincher and wound up giving up two hits over eight scoreless innings in the Tigers' 3-0 win.
"I can usually tell by the look on his face and his demeanor prior to a game when he's zeroed in and locked in," said Tigers manager Jim Leyland, "and he was locked in tonight."
Now the Tigers turn their attention toward the Red Sox, as they try to get back to the World Series for a second straight season.
Detroit went 93-69 to win a third straight AL Central crown thanks to another amazing campaign from Miguel Cabrera, and despite a wildly inconsistent season from Verlander.
While Verlander struggled, the rest of the staff thrived, specifically right- hander Max Scherzer, who enjoyed the best year of his career, as he won an MLB-best 21 games, while pitching to a 2.90 ERA and striking out 240 batters over a career-high 214 innings.
In Verlander, Scherzer and Anibal Sanchez the Tigers produced three 200- strikeout pitchers on the same team for just the third time in history, the first since the 1969 Astros.
Sanchez, who led the AL with a 2.57 ERA, will get the start for the Tigers in Game 1 against the Red Sox. Often overlooked because of who he pitches with, Sanchez was one of the best pitchers in either league over the second half of the season, going 7-2 with a 2.20 ERA after the All-Star break.
Sanchez, though, was rocked by the A's in the ALDS to the tune of six runs (5 earned) in 4 1/3 innings.
Scherzer will be pushed back to Game 2 after throwing two innings of relief in Game 4 of the ALDS on Tuesday.
Amazingly, the Tigers starting staff led the AL in almost every major category in spite of Verlander, who was only 13-12 and finished the year with his highest ERA (3.46), lowest strikeout rate (23.5 percent) and lowest innings total (218 1/3) since 2008 while battling reduced velocity.
Verlander, though, could to be getting hot at the right time, as he did not allow a run in 15 innings of the ALDS, while striking out 21 batters. He's 7-4 lifetime in the postseason with a 3.48 ERA in 14 starts.
However, after his marvelous Game 5 effort against the A's, Verlander won't pitch until Game 3 when the ALCS shifts to Detroit.
As good as their starting staff may have been, though, any conversation about the Tigers begins and ends with the great Cabrera, who came within an eyelash of a second straight Triple Crown, but seems to be playing through a few ailments.
Cabrera may have fell short of his remarkable 2012 season, but still hit a career-high .348 to become the first player in more than two decades to win three straight AL batting titles. His 44 home runs were second to the 53 by Baltimore's Chris Davis, and he finished second in RBI, one behind Davis' 138.
He batted .330 last year with 44 homers and 139 RBI.
Cabrera's home run in the decisive fifth game against the A's set the tone, but it was first homer in more than three weeks. He was just 5-for-20 in the series with three RBI and is battling both abdominal and knee injuries.
The great Cabrera is, of course, supported by a tremendous lineup that includes Prince Fielder, Victor Martinez and Torii Hunter. The Tigers, though, hit just .235 as a team in the ALDS.
If there is one giant concern on Detroit's end it is its bullpen.
Joaquin Benoit isn't exactly Mariano Rivera, but few, if any closers are. And keep in mind, the Tigers went to the World Series a year ago with a closer-by- committee approach.
Other than the distinct advantage in the bullpen, these teams are pretty evenly matched.
They finished 1-2 in the majors in both runs scored and OPS. Boston may have hit two more homers, but Detroit had a slightly better staff ERA (3.61 to 3.79).
Detroit could get a huge boost if Verlander is back to being his dominant self. The problem is we won't find out until Game 3 and by then it may be too late.
The Red Sox just don't have any weaknesses. They hit, they pitch, they run, they do everything. It's hard to see them losing here.
Prediction: RED SOX in SIX