Keys to winning the 2013 ALCS
(SportsNetwork.com) - The Boston Red Sox and Detroit Tigers have been playing each other since 1901. However, when they take the field Saturday night in Game 1 of the American League Championship Series, amazingly it will be the first time that they will be playing in the postseason.
These teams are as evenly matched as you will find.
Boston and Detroit finished the year 1-2 in the majors in both runs scored and OPS. While the Red Sox hit two more homers, the Tigers' staff had a lower ERA (3.61 to 3.79).
One year removed from a miserable 93-loss season, the Red Sox rebounded to win an AL East title behind an AL-best 97 wins. They are back in this round for the first time since 2008 after upending the Tampa Bay Rays in four games of the ALDS.
Detroit, meanwhile, finds itself back in the ALCS for the third straight year 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.
The Tigers were 4-3 against the Red Sox in 2013, winning three of four at Comerica Park in June and dropping two of three at Fenway in September. In fact, the last time they met Boston smacked eight home runs and won, 20-4.
As an introduction to this ALCS matchup, let's take a look at some of the keys to winning the series for both clubs:
BOSTON RED SOX
1. TOP OF THE ORDER
Boston's lineup continues to be driven 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.
But it was the people hitting in front of him that deserve credit for the Red Sox win over the Rays.
Leadoff hitter Jacoby Ellsbury missed most of September with a compression fracture in his right foot, but showed no signs of being hampered in the ALDS, as the soon-to-be free agent went 9-for-18 and scored seven times with four stolen bases.
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.
Second baseman Dustin Pedroia may have only hit .235 versus the Rays, but still drove in five runs and is, of course, the heart and soul of the team.
2. KOJI UEHARA
If you are looking for an MVP on this Red Sox team you may have to look to the bullpen where right-hander Koji Uehara 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.
3. RUN, RUN, RUN
Boston as a team stole 123 bases this season.
The Red Sox' 86.6 percent success rate on stolen bases was the second-best since 1920. In fact, they had stolen 45 consecutive bases dating back to Aug. 8 before Tampa Bay's Jose Lobaton caught Daniel Nava on a botched hit-and-run in Game 4 of the Division Series.
It was unknown how Ellsbury's foot injury would impact the Red Sox' running, game, but he led the way with four of the team's six stolen bases in the DS.
On the other hand, the Tigers ranked dead last in the league with just 35 stolen bases.
1. MIGUEL CABRERA'S HEALTH
There is no question that Miguel Cabrera is the best right-handed hitter in baseball.
Cabrera may have fell short of his remarkable 2012 season that saw him become the majors' first Triple Crown winner since 1967, 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.
But, he just doesn't look right at the plate. The abdominal pain that bothered him for most of September still appears to be a problem, as well as a few other ailments that we are likely unaware of.
Cabrera's home run in the decisive fifth game against the A's set the tone in that one and was a good sign. But, still, it was first homer in more than three weeks. He was just 5-for-20 against the A's with three RBI.
If the Tigers can't get him going they may not last very long against the Red Sox.
2. STARTING STAFF
The good news for the Tigers is that Justin Verlander appears to be ready to re-claim his title as the best pitcher on the planet. The bad news is that he won't go in this series until Game 3 after having to save the Tigers season in Game 5 versus the A's.
While Verlander struggled during the regular season, 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.
Anibal Sanchez, who will pitch Game 1, quietly put together a terrific season as well, and led the AL with a 2.57 ERA. But, Sanchez was rocked by the A's in the ALDS to the tune of six runs (5 earned) in 4 1/3 innings.
It's imperative that either Sanchez or Scherzer get a win in either of the first two games.
With the way Verlander is going right now, having not allowed a run in 15 innings this postseason, he is certainly capable of swinging momentum back toward the Tigers in a Game 3 at Comerica Park.
3. JOAQUIN BENOIT
These teams are as evenly matched as it gets. However, if there is one area that the Red Sox hold a decided advantage it is in the 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.
Keep in mind too that neither left-hander Phil Coke nor righty Bruce Rondon were on the ALDS roster because of injuries. It remains to be seem if either will be available against the Red Sox, but if not, lefty Jose Alvarez could become a huge factor in this series, particularly against Ortiz.