MLB Coverage: Another Slam Triggers A Grand Celebration In Boston

Throughout Game 6 it had the feel of a night that didn’t quite belong to the Boston Red Sox. Dustin Pedroia missed a three-run homer by inches when a ball just went foul down the left field line. David Ortiz and Mike Napoli missed chances to tie a 2-1 game in the sixth. Max Scherzer wasn’t as dominating as he’d been in Game 2, but the Detroit starter and presumptive Cy Young winner was still pitching extremely well.

Thus, when Jonny Gomes missed another home run by inches in the bottom of the seventh, it still seemed like the Tigers’ game to lose, even as the ball clanged off the top of the Green Monster and Gomes rolled into second with no one out.

But lose it is exactly what Detroit did. Scherzer blew away Stephen Drew on a strikeout, meaning Boston could no longer tie the game by productive outs. Even though Xander Boegarts drew a walk, it looked more like a great at-bat from the rookie in laying off some tough pitches than any sign that Scherzer was losing out.

Then, with eight outs still to get, and a bullpen that’s been a heart attack waiting to happen all year, Jim Leyland came to get Scherzer. The pitch count was 110, but Leyland himself had said before the game that 125 was the magic number for Game 6. Scherzer had reportedly asked out in Game 2 after seven innings, but since this was the middle of an inning there’s no way that could be the case here.

Drew Smyly was called in from the pen to face Jacoby Ellsbury who slapped a ground ball up the middle. Normally reliable Jose Iglesias booted it behind the bag. It’s quite probable that Iglesias was rushing to get an inning-ending double play. If so, that was a rookie mistake–the speedy Ellsbury was unlikely to be doubled up, but the Tigers should have at least gotten an out. Now the bases were loaded and a sac fly could tie the game or a hit give Boston the lead.

Leyland again went to his bullpen, calling on Jose Veras. It was again reminiscent of Game 2, when the Tiger manager zipped through four different pitchers trying to get the right matchups. Then something else reminiscent of Game 2 happened–Shane Victorino hit a grand slam, Boston was ahead 5-2 and their own reliable bullpen could take over.

Let’s be clear–Boston played better than Detroit in Game 6, and until Victorino’s home run, just had not gotten the breaks or the key hit. The Tigers had only one legitimate rally, when they scored two runs to take the lead in the top of the sixth. But throughout this ALCS, Detroit made little mistakes and did not play to their strengths.

Even the Tigers’ two-run sixth inning should have been bigger, but an inexcusable baserunning blunder by Prince Fielder let Boston escape. If we were to create contrasting visual images of this series, we have a split screen, with Fielder running futilely back to third in a rundown on one side, with Dustin Pedroia turning a razor-sharp double play on the other. The Red Sox out-executed the Tigers consistently and put themselves in position to eventually win in the late innings.

Let’s be clear on something else–Jim Leyland is an outstanding manager . His track record of success shows him winning in Pittsburgh, Miami and Detroit, places not necessarily synonymous with baseball excellence when he’s not in the dugout. Those who criticize his playoff shortcomings should note that Leyland has still reached three World Series and has one ring (1997 Florida). I generally don’t like “can’t win the big one” tags in any case, but with Leyland it’s not even accurate.

But I just don’t understand what Detroit’s skipper was doing in his pitching decisions. It was apparent from the start of this series that the Tigers needed to win with starting pitching. TheSportsNotebook’s American League Championship Series preview suggested the team look to the 2005 Chicago White Sox for inspiration, a team that got complete-game wins in all four of their victories. The minute Scherzer was lifted, I, as a Boston fan, got a surge of hope and felt that even if the Red Sox didn’t tie the game in the seventh, they would have a good shot with six more outs to deal with.

The Boston bullpen had its own unique journey through the season. The team traded for Joel Hanrahan and he ended up lost for the year with elbow surgery. Andrew Bailey took over after that and he hit the disabled list. Finally, with no other options, John Farrell handed the ninth-inning gig to Koji Uehara. After four dominating appearances in this ALCS, Uehara has being handed the trophy as MVP of this series.

Uehara’s MVP was well-earned, and the big grand slams of Victorino, David Ortiz and another big bomb from Mike Napoli will take their place in Boston sports lore. But the words of Fox play-by-play man Joe Buck are the epithet for this series–“Two grand slams by Boston in games started by Max Scherzer, not given up by Max Scherzer. Detroit didn’t ride their horse at the most critical moments and likely lost because of it.

TheSportsNotebook’s MLB coverage returns early next week with a World Series preview, as the Red Sox get set to host the St. Louis Cardinals, who wrapped up the National League pennant on Friday. Game 1 is Wednesday night.