It's been four long years since the Red Sox have made the playoffs, and there's still one too-long month of baseball left between Boston and a return to the postseason. But with Miguel Cabrera returning to the lineup and Cy Young candidate Max Scherer taking the mound against Jon Lester, the Tigers provided the Red Sox with a postseason-sized challenge. And, when it became clear that there was an actual game rather than a blowout in the offing, Red Sox fans were reminded for one fantastic night what playoff baseball feels like.
For all that this would prove one of the best games of the year for the Red Sox, at first it felt like it was destined to be one of the most torturous. Even before Max Scherzer took the mound for the first time, Jon Lester's first two batters faced promised nothing but misery. Completely unable to find an out pitch, Lester labored through an eight-pitch at bat ending in a double against Austin Jackson, and then needed nine more pitches to get Torii Hunter to fly out.
Lester would battle back to get both Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder out, striking out the latter on a foul tip. It was an encouraging sign, but with 25 pitches already on his arm, Lester was looking entirely questionable. So when Max Scherzer came on and struck out the side with 13 excellent pitches, Boston's odds seemed remarkably long for a 0-0 tie headed to the second inning. And if things seemed bad then, Jose Iglesias (of course!) doubling in Omar Infante in the top of the second made the situation that much worse.
If such a thing exists, it felt like a 1-0 blowout. That feeling would change slightly even as Scherzer mowed through the Red Sox in the second, third, and fourth innings, but only thanks to Lester suddenly finding his stride in a big way. That lack of an out pitch that plagued him early on was remedied at first by a curveball that picked up two of Lester's three third-inning strikeouts. Only a Will Middlebrooks error in the fifth broke up what would have been a streak of nine straight Tigers retired by Lester, and while he would go on to load the bases in that inning, he came up big by inducing a ground ball off the bat of none other than Miguel Cabrera to end the inning.
Then, in the bottom of the fifth, the seemingly impossible happened: Max Scherzer faltered. Facing the one Red Sox batter to have reached base against him already, Jonny Gomes, Scherzer surrendered another single to the left fielder. This time, however, it was not followed up with an out, but another hit, courtesy of Stephen Drew, whose long fly ball jumped up and out of play to put runners on second and third with just one out in the inning.
Of course, David Ross went down on three straight strikes, and suddenly memories of all the worst missed opportunities on the year started to come flooding back...right until Scherzer threw his next pitch: a slider that ended up flat and over the heart of the plate to Will Middlebrooks. Boston's third baseman put a good swing on the ball, and while he hit it in on the ground in the general vicinity of Jose Iglesias, it was too far away and too well hit for the defensive whiz to stop it from getting through. Gomes and Drew both came around to score, and the 1-0 blowout had turned into a 2-1 lead.
More than ever, the Red Sox needed Jon Lester to follow up their productive inning with some lockdown pitching. And while Lester made them sweat it out, allowing two of the first three batters to reach, a strikeout of Matt Tuiasosopo and fly ball from Brayan Pena ended the inning with Boston's lead intact. A much cleaner seventh would leave the Sox with just three outs to find from their bullpen before turning to Koji Uehara for the end.
Perhaps more than in any other inning, this is where the playoff feel really shone through. With the heart of Detroit's lineup due to bat, John Farrell pulled out all the stops to get the ball to Koji in the ninth. First up was Brandon Workman, the team's typical long-relief man using nothing but gas to get Miguel Cabrera out. Immediately following him was Craig Breslow, called on to face Prince Fielder and Victor Martinez. While Martinez' splits would not prove out this time, with Breslow falling behind the switch-hitting DH and eventually allowing a single, he did get Fielder, leaving just one out for Junichi Tazawa. All it took Tazawa was four pitches, switching between off-speed and his usual 95 MPH fastball to blow Omar Infante away and send it to the ninth.
And, of course, that meant the danger was past. Because Koji Uehara is Koji Uehara. Nine pitches, a pop-up, and two strike outs later, and the Red Sox had their big win.
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