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Closing Time: John Lackey outduels Justin Verlander as Red Sox take 2-1 ALCS lead over Tigers

10.15.13 at 7:45 pm ET
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Mike Napoli's solo homer proved decisive in the Sox' 1-0 Game 3 victory in the ALCS. (AP)

Mike Napoli’s solo homer proved decisive in the Sox’ 1-0 Game 3 victory in the ALCS. (AP)

DETROIT — The focus leading up to Game 3 of the American League Championship Series was squarely on one place: Tigers starter Justin Verlander. After the Sox had failed to get a hit against either Detroit starter in the first two contests, was it possible they could reverse course against a pitcher who has been the most dominant in the AL this decade?

The attention heaped on that question swallowed all other dialogue leading up to Game 3. The Red Sox thought that the Verlander centrism of the buildup — with no thought given to Sox starter John Lackey — might have been somewhat misguided.

“John Lackey is a stud. And it’s been funny for me to watch all the coverage of the game coming in,” said Jake Peavy, taking note of the somewhat obsessive coverage of Verlander’s outing. “Almost like we didn’t have a starter going today. Our starter is pretty good, too. Anybody as a rookie that wins Game 7 of the World Series, you can’t get any bigger of a stage. And for him to go out there at 22, 23 years old, however old he was, shows you what this guy is made of. Everybody in that clubhouse loves John, loves his demeanor, makeup, he’s got that old school Texan makeup that we all love, Nolan Ryan kind of attitude.

“John is a gamer. John is going to go out, and I promise you this, just like I said, we understand what kind of challenge we have going against Justin Verlander, it’s no secret. Justin is probably the best in the game right now. But at that same time, there ain’t any part of John Lackey that doesn’t think he’s going to win today and will do anything he can possibly do to make that happen.”

Verlander was brilliant, giving up just one run in eight innings while permitting four hits, one walk and punching out 10. But Lackey, true to Peavy’s proclamation, was better, firing 6 2/3 shutout innings in which he punched out eight and walked none to lead the Sox to a 1-0 victory in Game 3 of the American League Championship Series against the Tigers, with Boston taking a 2-1 lead in the best-of-seven series.

Lackey was overpowering throughout his outing, with an outstanding fastball (a pitch that elicited five swings and misses from Miguel Cabrera), a diving slider and curveball as well as a cutter. The combination yielded five groundball outs in addition to the eight punchouts, which represented a new postseason career high for Lackey.

Mike Napoli, after getting overpowered and striking out in each of his first two plate appearances against Verlander to extend his ALCS futility to 0-for-6 with six punchouts and a walk, unloaded on a full-count 96 mph fastball from the Tigers starter, launching it just over the fence in left-center for a solo homer — his sixth in 39 career postseason games — and a 1-0 lead. That was just the third two-strike homer that Verlander had given up all year, and the first since July 9.

The Sox bullpen followed Lackey with 2 1/3 scoreless innings, allowing the Sox to claim their first 1-0 victory of the 2013 season, and the third 1-0 win in franchise postseason history (with the other two coming in Game 1 of the 1986 World Series and Game 1 of the 1918 World Series).

WHAT WENT RIGHT FOR THE RED SOX

– Red Sox manager John Farrell was aggressive in the use of his bullpen, to startling effect. He pulled Lackey after 6 2/3 innings and 97 pitches — a stage of the game in which the right-hander has typically been extremely effective this year, holding opponents to a .149/.184/.255 line with one homer in 49 plate appearances after his 97th pitch — to go to Craig Breslow. After Breslow walked the first batter he faced (Alex Avila), the lefty got a groundout from Omar Infante to end the inning.

Then, after Breslow issued a one-out walk in the eighth, Farrell went to Junichi Tazawa and, after the right-hander gave up a single down the right field line to put runners on the corners, left him in to face Tigers slugger Miguel Cabrera. Tazawa continued a game-long pattern by the Sox, beating Cabrera with three fastballs down and away, each of which resulted in a swing and miss for the second out of the eighth — and perhaps the biggest of the game, given that it denied the Tigers a chance to score a game-tying run with an out. Farrell then went to closer Koji Uehara for cleanup hitter Prince Fielder, with the right-hander punching out Fielder on three pitches (foul on a fastball, swing-and-miss on a fastball, swing-and-miss on a splitter) to keep the 1-0 lead intact before closing out the game with a scoreless ninth.

– Napoli was 0-for-9 leading up to Game 3 of the ALCS. Farrell explained before the game that Napoli’s ongoing presence in the middle of the lineup was too important to consider tinkering.

“Even though on days when maybe if you look at that line score that hasn’t shown multiple hits, RBIs, runs scored, whatever may be with Mike, he fits into our overall approach. He runs the pitch total up there,” said Farrell. “There’s been occasion where even though there might have been four outs made, however they come, there’s still a high number of pitches seen, and that fits into our overall approach. Whether or not that takes place today remains to be seen. But Mike is the guy we’ve leaned on in the middle of our lineup and he’s going to remain in our spot.”

Napoli snapped a 10-game streak without a homer in the playoffs with his blast off of Verlander.

– The decision to start Jonny Gomes yielded solid results, as he produced a tough nine-pitch at-bat in his first trip to the plate and then managed an infield single (the Sox’ first of the game) against Verlander with two outs in the fifth. He later contributed with a crucial diving catch in left against Fielder leading off the seventh.

– The bullpen work of Breslow, Tazawa and Uehara brought the Sox’ bullpen total to 8 1/3 shutout innings with five hits and seven strikeouts in the ALCS.

Stephen Drew snapped an 0-for-16 stretch by lining a single to right against Verlander to lead off the eighth inning.

WHAT WENT WRONG FOR THE RED SOX

– Verlander became the third straight Tigers starter to punch out 10 Sox hitters, following the lead of Anibal Sanchez (12) and Max Scherzer (13). Detroit’s starters now have a 0.86 ERA in the first three contests.

– The Sox failed to take advantage when Drew led off the eighth by singling and advancing to second on Torii Hunter‘s misplay in right field. Most notably, Will Middlebrooks could not advance Drew to third, flying out to shallow center and taking away any chance that the Sox might be able to score an insurance run with a productive out.

Jarrod Saltalamacchia went 0-for-3 with three punchouts. That said, he did a tremendous job of executing the Sox’ gameplan to help navigate his pitchers to their 1-0 victory.

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