The Red Sox and the Tigers have played four games of the 2013 ALCS and they are tied at 2-2. Game 5 has Jon Lester facing off against Anibal Sanchez in a rematch of Game 1 with the loser in this one facing elimination on Saturday in Game 6 at Fenway. Red Sox fans have plenty of reasons to be worried about Sanchez after the Tigers' righty held the Red Sox hitless through seven innings in Game 1. One player who wasn't fooled by Sanchez' effectively wild mix of pitches, however, was Dustin Pedroia, and the struggling Red Sox star is a good bet to be at the center of the action in Game 5.
Sanchez struck out 12 Red Sox hitters in that first game no-hit bid, but he also walked six, giving the Red Sox several scoring opportunities and limiting himself to seven innings even though he had a no-hitter going. Sanchez's stuff was absolutely nasty in that game. He threw change-ups, curves and sliders for more than half of his pitches and Red Sox hitters chased both the change and the slider more often than his fastball, missing both well over 50 percent of the time. Only three of the Red Sox starting nine managed to avoid striking out against Sanchez and Pedroia was the only player to reach base twice against Sanchez. Simply put, the Red Sox might be in trouble in Game 5.
Despite his relative success in Game 1, Pedroia has been struggling some in this ALCS series. He is 3-14 with three walks, an RBI double and five strike outs in the series thus far, but he went 0-4 in Game 3 and 1-4 in Game 4 while making some costly mistakes on defense. The low point for Pedroia may have been his final at-bat in Game 4. With Jacoby Ellsbury at third base with one out in the ninth, Pedroia was uncharacteristically aggressive against Tigers closer Joaquin Benoit. He swung at three straight pitches after a called strike one, fouling two off two before chasing a ball in the dirt for strike three. Not only did Pedroia fail to bring in the run, he also looked terrible while doing so, showing a surprising lack of discipline at the plate in a key at-bat last night, striking out on a pitch which bounced into home plate. The Red Sox need Dustin Pedroia to produce on offense and over the last two games of the series, he has let them down.
Even though Pedroia isn't playing up to his usual level of excellence and Sanchez was wholly unhittable the last time he faced the Red Sox, this match-up still could easily go in Pedroia's favor. While the rest of the Red Sox lineup chased Sanchez's nasty off-speed pitches, Pedroia did not. The 2008 MVP had never seen Sanchez before, but he was still able lay off pitches that were fooling guys like Shane Victorino and David Ortiz. He now has three plate appearances against the Tigers' Game 5 starter and he has seen 11 pitches, swinging at just one, a first-pitch fastball which he hit for a fly out in his second at-bat in Game 1. Pedroia is one of the toughest outs in the game, walking more than he strikes out and sporting a .302 career average, so a pitcher like Sanchez who works out of the zone on half of his pitches is likely to end up behind in the count more often than not against Pedey. If Pedroia holds his aggressiveness in check as he did in Game 1, he should be able to wear Sanchez down, get on base and possibly even force him into making a costly mistake.
Jacoby Ellsbury broke out of his ALCS slump with a 4-5 performance in Game 4, giving fans hope that the top of the Red Sox lineup may be starting to come around. Dustin Pedroia and Shane Victorino need to be next. If John Farrell doesn't follow Jim Leyland's lead and shake up the lineup for Game 5, Pedroia will be in his now-typical number-three spot in the order, hitting ahead of David Ortiz and Mike Napoli. Those two players have struggled in the series, but they have also delivered two of the most important hits of the series. If Pedroia succeeds against Sanchez, the recently unhittable Tiger will be forced to attack those two in a number of pressure situations. Sanchez could continue to dominate, but each time he has to run that gauntlet, the chances he will falter go up.