MLB Coverage: 2013 American League Championship Series Preview

The 2013 American League Championship Series pairs up the Boston Red Sox and Detroit Tigers, with the best-of-seven series beginning Saturday night in Fenway Park. TheSportsNotebook’s MLB coverage previews the battle with our standard postseason format–comparing each team’s ability to get on base, to hit for power, their starting pitching and their bullpen.

ABILITY TO GET ON BASE: Boston is easy to analyze in this area–everybody except third baseman Will Middlebrooks has been a major asset all year at grinding pitch counts, taking their walks and being a regular part of the offense. Even Middlebrooks got better after a brief banishment to Triple A, and he then collected three hits and three walks against Tampa Bay in the Division Series.

Detroit has a few more holes than Boston, but the Tigers do have to be given some credit in all offensive areas for the fact that Comerica Park is very pitcher-friendly, and they played the Division Series in another pitcher’s park at Oakland. But Detroit’s only problem areas are that Alex Avila hasn’t been very good this year, and Austin Jackson strikes out too much for a leadoff man.

On balance, they match up reasonably well with Boston and it will be interesting to see how the teams look without the park condition adjustment. The Tigers though, did not hit well in the Division Series, and with the Red Sox doing a number on Matt Moore and David Price, you can’t say it was about differing opposition.

POWER: This is another area where Boston is very steady throughout the lineup, though given the relatively friendly confines of Fenway Park, they aren’t as dominant as you might think. David Ortiz anchors the lineup with 30 home runs and if they gave out Division Series MVPs, Big Papi would have won it against Tampa. Mike Napoli went deep 23 times. But what makes the Red Sox lineup most dangerous in the power area is the consistent ability of so many hitters–from the Jacoby Ellsbury-Shane Victorino-Dustin Pedroia top of the order, to players like Danny Nava and Jonny Gomes–is their ability to pepper away with extra base hits.

The health of Miguel Cabrera is a massive X-factor looming over this series. Miggy showed his clutch skill with a big two-run shot in Game 5 of the Oakland series, but that was his only notable power moment in what’s been a struggle for the last month of the season due to nagging injuries that by all accounts are not going to be healed until the offseason. Cabrera will find a way to get on base, he deserves all kinds of credit for his mental toughness, but whether he’s physically capable to take over an entire series with his power is very much in doubt.

Which brings us to Prince Fielder, who has been simply awful this postseason, just as he was in 2012. At this point, you can’t give Fielder the benefit of the doubt anymore. He’s got to prove he can hit with the pressure on in October, and when Oakland intentionally walked a wounded Cabrera to get to Fielder at a point where a big inning could have busted it open, spoke volumes on the differeing levels of respect each hitter gets.

Victor Martinez has good power and is swinging a hot bat right now for Detroit, and both Tori Hunter and Jhonny Peralta can also go deep. Peralta, in fact, probably saved the Tiger season with his game-tying three-run homer in Game 4 against Oakland.

STARTING PITCHING: Boston has its rotation lined up with Jon Lester set to go for Game 1. Manager John Farrell has not yet announced how the John Lackey-Clay Bucholz-Jake Peavy trio will shakeout. Bucholz and Lackey were not sharp against Tampa, while Lester and Peavy were brilliant. On balance though, the strength of the Red Sox rotation lies in the fact there is a lot of balance 1 thru 4. Lester is the ace, but not in the way that, say, Adam Wainwright is in St. Louis where so much rides on his starts.

Detroit has announced Anibal Sanchez for Game 1 and after that everything is up in the air. The cost of going five games with Oakland is that Justin Verlander is not available until Game 3. You have to assume 21-game winner Max Scherzer goes Tuesday and I’m not sure why that hasn’t been officially announced yet. That puts Doug Fister in line for Game 4.

The Red Sox may have great balance without aces, but the Tigers have both.

BULLPEN: The Boston bullpen has been coming together in the second half, and other than one fatal pitch in Game 3 of the Tampa series–a walkoff solo home run by Jose Lobaton, they were otherwise unhittable in doing serious work to close out tough wins in Games 2 & 4. Koji Uehara has been lights-out in the closer’s job, and Craig Breslow is really coming in short relief. Junichi Tazawa gives you nervous moments, but he’d probably be the best reliever in the Detroit pen.

Which brings us to the Tigers. Joaquin Benoit may have closed both his save chances against Oakland, including Game 5. He also had a 5.40 ERA, and let the tying run to the plate in both Games 4 & 5 in spite of starting a clean inning with leads of four and three runs respectively. And he inexplicably hit Yoenis Cespedes with two outs and two strikes in the ninth inning of Game 5 to allow the tying run up.

And what’s scary is that there’s no point in second-guessing Jim Leyland, because Benoit is the best he got there. I’d suggest Detroit fans read up on the history of the 2005 American League Championship Series-the White Sox won four consecutive games over the Angels with complete games from the starter each time. The Tigers have the starters who can do it, and the bullpen that demands it.

HISTORICAL CONTEXT: For two of the game’s most historic franchises, there’s not a lot here in the way of great battles. There’s little in the way of pennant races when they were both in the AL East prior to 1998 when Detroit moved to the Central, following Milwaukee’s jump to the National League.

The Red Sox and Tigers did have one stirring battle in 1972 that came down to a winner-take-all series in old Tiger Stadium. Detroit won the first two games to take the division, the second of which is remembered in Boston lore as “when Aparicio fell rounding third”, as veteran Luis Aparicio slipped on wet grass and it messed up a potential big inning.

When Boston won the meaningless Sunday finale it pulled them to within a half-game of Detroit and tied in the loss column–a players’ strike delayed the opening of the 1972 season and no effort was made to ensure teams would play the same number of games. They just picked up the schedule where it was and played it out, an astonishing lack of foresight.

It’s really basketball where these two cities have made their bones in hating each other–there were the great battles of the Bird-era Celtics against the Bad Boy Pistons in 1987 and 1988, each team winning once. Detroit’s run in the ’00s as the power in the East gave way to Doc Rivers’ Celtics and a new Big Three in the 2008 conference finals.

PICK: Boston has better balance all the way around, and an edge in a tight game late. But we’ve just finished watching a Tigers-A’s series that demonstrated the power of transcendent stars to win a single game or a short series. Detroit’s got the game’s brightest stars right now. If this come to Game 7, even though it’s Fenway Park, Verlander would be in line to pitch that game. I opened this season rooting for Boston, but picking Detroit. The way events have unfolded have made the Red Sox the betting favorite, but I’m ending the American League year the way I began.