The Red Sox and Tigers were a blockbuster matchup for the ALCS, pairing two of the league's most powerful teams during the past decade. The series didn't disappoint, providing six games of tense drama with some moments sure to be remembered for years to come. Boston ultimately prevailed, coming through with the big plays when they mattered the most. Here are five observations from the Red Sox's postseason victory over the Tigers.
1. The bullpens were what we thought they'd be. Going into the ALCS, the Tigers' relief corps was a major question mark, especially the middle relief preceding setup man Drew Smyly and closer Joaquin Benoit. Meanwhile, the Red Sox had a lockdown arm for the ninth inning in Koji Uehara, with Junichi Tazawa setting up and Craig Breslow effective against left-handers. (Remember earlier in the season when both clubs were struggling to find a closer? One team solved their problem, while the other didn't.)
This was essentially the difference in the series. Benoit served up the grand slam to David Ortiz in Game 2 that prevented the Tigers from taking an assertive 2-0 series lead. And of course, Shane Victorino hit his grand slam off Jose Veras in Game 6 that was the knockout blow in the series clincher. Those were the loudest, most memorable moments.
On the other side, Boston's bullpen clamped down when it was most important. In Game 3, Tazawa struck out Miguel Cabrera with one out and two runners on in the eighth inning. Uehara followed up by striking out Prince Fielder to end the Tigers' best scoring threat in a 1-0 Red Sox win. In the pivotal Game 5, Uehara was called upon to get five outs (his second multi-inning save of the series) and made sure Detroit didn't come close to tying the game.
The difference between the two bullpens will carry into the offseason. The Tigers could undergo an overhaul with Benoit a free agent and Smyly possibly joining the starting rotation. But for the Red Sox, Uehara is under contract through next season and one of the best bargains in MLB at $4.5 million. Tazawa and Breslow are under team control for at least the next two years as well.
2. Better depth overcame bigger stars. Another big advantage the Red Sox enjoyed was with their deeper bench. Manager John Farrell had the luxury of going from Daniel Nava to Jonny Gomes in left field and using David Ross at catcher to pair with Jon Lester. Perhaps most importantly. the Red Sox had Xander Bogaerts available to play third base, giving the lineup more punch over Will Middlebrooks and not losing anything defensively.
Compare that with the Tigers, who had to make choices between more offense and lesser defense (Jhonny Peralta at left field or shortstop) and had no viable alternatives for a slumping Fielder. Maybe Fielder wouldn't have been benched because of his enormous contract and potential to break out at any time. But manager Jim Leyland had no choice but to keep letting his first baseman hit grounders to second base because he had the likes of Don Kelly, Andy Dirks and Ramon Santiago on his bench.
When Alex Avila was knocked out of Game 5, defense behind the plate suffered notably with Brayan Pena. Moving Austin Jackson down in the lineup turned his game around, but what if the Tigers had a suitable replacement to play in center field instead? There were too many areas in which the Tigers had to stick with a slumping player and suffer for it, while the Red Sox could make a change and get meaningful contributions to their lineup.
3. Austin Jackson can't be the Tigers' leadoff hitter next year. Yes, I know — #analysis. But the Tigers got a look into their future during the ALCS, and it's a future in which Jackson isn't at the top of the batting order. With Jim Leyland announcing his retirement, perhaps the new Detroit skipper will try to salvage Jackson and hope to make him into a leadoff threat. (He was in 2012.) But if the Tigers' next manager tries this, he'll end up just as frustrated as Leyland was.
Until Jackson was taken out of the leadoff spot, he was batting .091 in the postseason with a .143 on-base percentage and 18 strikeouts in 33 at-bats. Whether it was because Jackson felt less pressure batting eighth or he was pitched differently, the move paid off and actually made the Tigers' lineup seem deeper. Jackson batted 6-for-9 in the No. 8 spot with three walks, two RBI and no strikeouts.
Tigers general manager Dave Dombrowski needs to remember this going into next season. He has to find another player better suited to bat leadoff, get on base and put the ball in play. That hitter probably isn't currently on the Detroit roster, unless Torii Hunter stays at leadoff. But he was signed to be team's No. 2 hitter and the Tigers would have to find another batter for that spot in the lineup. However, that could be easier than going another season with Jackson leading off.
4. Boston's offseason moves paid off big-time. Any doubts about the Red Sox signing Mike Napoli and Shane Victorino as free agents were largely erased during the regular season. Napoli batted .259 and struck out 187 times in 578 plate appearances, but provided a right-handed power threat to bat behind Ortiz with 23 home runs and 92 RBI. Victorino had one of the best years of his career, batting .294 with an .801 OPS. He also played outstanding defense in right field, saving 25 runs more than the average player at his position, according to FanGraphs' Ultimate Zone Rating.
Both players overcame early struggles in the ALCS to emerge as postseason heroes. Going into Game 3 of the series, Napoli was 0-for-4 with four strikeouts and batting .118 with a .176 slugging percentage during the playoffs. But his seventh-inning home run off Justin Verlander was the only run in Boston's 1-0 win. In Games 4 and 5, Napoli batted a combined 5-for-8 with two doubles and a homer. Victorino went into Game 6 batting 2-for-22 (.091) and went 0-for-2 in his first three plate appearances of the night. That probably won't be remembered after his grand slam that lifted the Red Sox to the AL pennant.
Then there's Uehara, and we've already detailed how incredible he was in this series. (His ALCS MVP award is also a big indicator.) He signed a one-year deal with a vesting option to be the setup man in front of Andrew Bailey and Joel Hanrahan. Yet would Boston be in the World Series if he hadn't taken over and dominated as the team's closer?
5. Prince Fielder should invest in earplugs. This is probably another Captain Obvious statement, but Fielder is well on his way to being the fans' No. 1 target for jeers and boos next season. Perhaps he'll keep a low profile and spend more time with his family, but that will allow fans to remember that botched slide into third base during Game 6 throughout the winter. They'll also remember Fielder batting 4-for-22 (.182) with no home runs or RBI from the $23 million man that's supposed to protect Cabrera in the Tigers' lineup and be a major run-producer. And of course, they'll remember that he's signed for another seven years and $168 million.
That contract makes him virtually untradeable. (We probably can't say "completely untradeable," since we've seen the massive contracts of Alex Rodriguez, Vernon Wells and Adrian Gonzalez dealt away.) Fielder also has a limited no-trade clause that allows him to block a deal to all but 10 teams. And after the 2016 season, Fielder would become a "10-and-five" man, who could veto any trade based on 10 years of major league service, five of them with the same team.
Fielder could talk to a local beat writer or show up to TigerFest in January and admit that he should have played better or acknowledge the toll that his personal issues took on him during the season. He could show up to spring training in the proverbial best shape of his life. That could smooth over bad feelings from fans. Or, as Leyland said in his retirement press conference, Fielder could hit some big home runs in April and May and win the people back. If not, it's going to be a long, tense seven years for Fielder and the Tigers.