BOSTON — Two of baseball's most iconic franchises will meet in the postseason for the first time today.
ASSOCIATED PRESS Enlarge
All it took was 113 years and a performance for the ages.
Two days after Justin Verlander's Game 5 magnum opus in Oakland, the Tigers and Red Sox open their best-of-seven AL championship series at Fenway Park — and it looks to be worth the wait.
For all the evidence of October's growing parity, these charter members of the AL in 1901 are not exhibit A. Detroit and Boston have big money, big stars, and bigger expectations.
Winners of five of the last 10 pennants, Boston and Detroit wield prolific lineups — the Red Sox were first in the majors in run scored, the Tigers second — and stonewalling starting pitching.
The Tigers will start the league’s ERA champion (Anibal Sanchez) in Game 1, the shoo-in Cy Young Award winner (Max Scherzer) in Game 2, Verlander in Game 3, and Doug Fister in Game 4. Boston counters with Jon Lester (15-8, 3.75 ERA) today, then Clay Buchholz (12-1, 1.74), John Lackey (10-13, 3.52), and Jake Peavy (12-5, 4.17).
"If you watch the Red Sox, they have a tough club," Tigers manager Jim Leyland said. "[Dustin] Pedroia, [Jacoby] Ellsbury, Jonny Gomes, Big Papi. I'm not saying they're tougher than Oakland. I'm saying they're a more veteran team."
The Red Sox will also be the more rested team. After putting the Tampa Bay Rays away in four games, they were home sleeping Thursday night while Detroit was on a coast-to-coast redeye.
"We're used to getting in at 9 a.m." Leyland said. "Most of the time it's not after a game. No, I'm kidding you. It was a little rough, to be honest with you. But it was probably the best long flight we've ever had, obviously, for the right reasons. We'll be fine."
Besides, the Tigers have done this before. They are the first team to crash three straight championship series since the Yankees in 1998-2001, and on an upward postseason trajectory. After progressing from the ALCS in 2011 to the World Series last fall, 84-year-old owner Mike Ilitch went all-in with a club-record $152.9 million payroll to bring Detroit its first baseball title since the Bless You Boys of 1984.
"I will say this, we were embarrassed last year in the World Series," Leyland said. "When you lose four straight, it’s not good. So I think there is some incentive there. ... There's certainly no guarantees, even though a lot of people said that if we don't make the playoff it's a total bust. You find out it's just not that easy. So we're back. It's almost like the basketball tournament. We're in the Final Four, and we'll see what happens."
Despite a vanishing offense early in the division series, the Tigers remained in the tournament with a thrilling Game 4 win and Verlander’s second straight winner-take-all masterpiece in Oakland.
Verlander continued to whisk away memories of his out-of-character season by attempting perfection but settling for brilliance, carrying a no-hitter into the seventh and limiting the A’s to two hits over eight innings. The Tigers’ ace, who joined Sandy Koufax circa 1965 as the second pitcher in MLB history with at least 10 strikeouts and no runs allowed in consecutive postseason games, will also be available for a potential seventh game.
Boston, meanwhile, is making its first postseason trip since 2009. The Red Sox bottomed out last year, their beer-and-fried-chicken-fueled September collapse in 2011 giving way to a 69-win season under Bobby Valentine. But after plucking manager John Farrell from the Blue Jays, they enjoyed a stunning turnaround in winning a league-best 97 games.
Lester is among the many Boston players who had comeback years. After fighting through the worst season of his eight-year career, the left-hander lowered his ERA by more than a run and led the Sox staff in wins.
Lester is 2-2 with a 4.63 ERA in seven career starts against the Tigers, but won both of his outings against Detroit this season. The Tigers won the season series 4-3.
"I've had more fun this year than I ever had in the big league level," Lester said. "Obviously, you walk in that first day and there's a lot of questions about: ’Are we going to be good again? Am I going to be good again?’"
As for Sanchez, the Tigers are confident he will be better than good again. The former Boston prospect followed his dominant regular season with a clunker in Game 3 against the A’s, allowing six runs on eight hits — including three home runs — in 4 1/3 innings.
"I think he was probably a little rusty in [Game 3], as Fister was the other day," Leyland said. "It took him a couple of innings to get going. I think he'll be back in the groove now."