Lackey, Napoli Key Crucial Game 3 Victory

Lackey pitched a phenomenal game on Tuesday. (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

Lackey used his emotions to turn in a phenomenal outing. (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

For the first three games of the American League Championship series, the margin of victory has yet to be greater than a run. And for the second game in a row, the Red Sox left with the better result after nine innings, edging their Tiger counterparts 1-0.

After looking to capitalize on its part last Sunday in one of the greatest Boston sports days in history, New England’s baseball team instead returned to its troublesome ways for the first six innings on Tuesday. Tigers superstar Justin Verlander stifled the Red Sox lineup in the first two-thirds of the game, yielding just two hits and a walk, while continuing Detroit’s strikeout onslaught with eight of his own.

Boston’s anxieties began to resurface, as its offense had posted goose eggs in 22 of its last 24 combined innings played. But after Jacoby Ellsbury shot a potential slump-breaking single into rightfield, the tides began to change. The centerfielder’s presence on the base path rattled the once-composed Verlander, as his base-stealing prowess forced the right-handed pitcher to nervously check the first base bag several times.

Though Verlander managed to eventually escape that sixth-inning, the damage was done. Ellsbury unnerved the seemingly untouchable pitcher just enough, to where Verlander threw a wild pitch—bouncing but a few feet from catcher Alex Avila—and allowed the first Red Sox player to grace an elusive scoring position. Thereafter, the feeling was palpable: Boston was itching for a run.

Napoli caught all of the baseball in go-ahead home run. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

Napoli caught all of the baseball in go-ahead home run. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

Enter Mike Napoli, who before his pivotal seventh-inning at-bat seemed like a walking strikeout (going 0-6 with six strikeouts prior). Unable to follow up on David Ortiz’s grand slam on Sunday night, Napoli batted right after Ortiz once again (who grounded out to start the inning), but without all the pressure.

Faced with a 1-2 count, Napoli uncharacteristically passed on two more balls thrown outside the strike zone, bringing it to a full count. And even more unexpectedly, Napoli smashed the next pitch he saw from Verlander into left-center that traveled 402 feet, landing with a little more room for comfort than Sunday’s game-turning bomb.

In accordance with the run-scoring ways of this tight series, Napoli was the last player on either team to cross the plate. But above all, Tuesday’s low-scoring affair had more to do with John Lackey than anyone else.

While game delays usually disrupt the creatures of habit that are pitchers, John Lackey reacted to the power outage at Comerica Park during the middle of the second-inning with a fervent rage. The right-hander, endlessly maligned during his pre-2013 tenure in Boston, exuded a fiery attitude throughout the rest of the game, most noticeable in inning-end outs and later a reluctance to be pulled by manager John Farrell.

The game was delayed for 17 minutes because the lights went out. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

The game was delayed for 17 minutes because the lights went out. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

Lackey simply pitched mad, and in this case, he extracted the absolute best from his emotions. After the 17-minute delay, Lackey yielded just two more hits, fanning eight Detroit batters, before reliever Craig Breslow replaced him two-thirds through the seventh-inning.

It only took 97 pitches, but Lackey also dispelled a looming, larger-scaled fear for Boston through his fantastic outing in Detroit.

After having been embarrassed by Anibal Sanchez on Saturday en route to a decisive Tigers victory, the Red Sox had yet to face the actual daunting part of playing Detroit in a playoff series: its two-headed pitching monster of Max Scherzer and Verlander. The series was shaped around games featuring these two excellent starters; if Boston couldn’t take the must-win games that did not showcase Detroit’s top weapons, how could it possibly gain any leverage whatsoever in this series?

The growing distress out of Game 1 was initially quelled in the subsequent tilt—and just barely. Scherzer overpowered the Red Sox just as Sanchez had done the night before, but clutch hitting in the latter innings saved the team from the disaster of going to Detroit with two losses. The series shifted to Comerica Park with the Tigers having won at least one game at Fenway Park, but also having squandered a tremendous start by their ace in another.

On Tuesday, Lackey’s sublime performance finished off what David Ortiz & Co. started on Sunday: the process of regaining the edge in the series, without letting the Scherzer/Verlander combination dictate its fate. John Lackey fiercely out-dueled his pitching opponent, Verlander, who on most days would seemingly possess the clear advantage. The tables have now turned Boston’s way, and part one of Detroit’s ace-pitching show has been nullified.

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What’s Giving Boston Sports a Ray of Hope? Red Sox Pitching Consistency

It hasn’t been pretty for Boston sports fans over the last ten days.

The passionate fanbase has suffered crippling blows to three of its major sports teams. The tragedies have been wide-ranging, from a deflating championship defeat, to the departure of defining franchise figures, to even reports about several, horrendous crimes concerning one football player.

So what appeared would be a summer full of optimism and eagerness—as is most commonly attributable to Bostonian teams—quickly came crashing down.

Yet somehow a positive sign remains in the Boston sports scene: the team thought least likely to bring about hope in its season—the Red Sox—has surpassed all expectations.

This resilient baseball club has fought to overcome constant scrutiny and past hardships, as well as numerous problems on the baseball field. By having the best record in the American League at the midway point in the season, the Red Sox serve as the lone bright spot for a sports-crazed city searching for answers.

The encouraging signs first came from the top of the pitching rotation: Clay Buchholz (5-0) and Jon Lester (4-0) guided the overlooked Boston team to a .692 winning percentage in the month of April. The successful start for the two starters continued on into May as well, as the Red Sox won 17 of the 22 starts Buchholz and Lester made combined.

But the month of June hasn’t been as kind to the resurgent two-headed monster of the Sox pitching staff. While Lester has gone 2-2 with a ghastly 7.62 ERA, the true ace in Buchholz had his CY Young-caliber start cut short due to neck/shoulder issues—he’s spent the last nine days on the DL and has started just two games this month.

So how are the Red Sox—who weren’t necessarily built to contend this season—still 3.5 games clear of their next AL East rival, despite recent struggles to their main pitching options?

Pitchers from the rest of the rotation have simply stepped up and efficiently filled in the gaps. Take John Lackey, Ryan Dempster, Felix Doubront, and Alfredo Aceves for example.

Lackey has slowly gained the faith of Red Sox nation.

Lackey has slowly gained the faith of Red Sox nation.

Lackey, who seemed like the most hated athlete in the city just a year ago, has a contributed a sublime effort. Coming off Tommy John surgery last season, Lackey has allowed more than 3 earned runs just twice in his 13 total starts, as he’s held his total ERA just under 3.00 so far. And though he hasn’t had too much run support in 2013, he has a 2-0 record since Buchholz went on his DL stint, and has steadily increased his strikeout totals and decreased his walks allowed.

Ryan Dempster, the number 3 starter in the Boston rotation, has also been excellent making up for the decline of Lester and absence of Buchholz. All five of his outings in June have been quality starts, and although only recording a win in three of those games, has rebounded nicely from rough showings in May.

Alfredo Aceves—the fiery, unpredictable pitcher—has succeeded in all three of his last fill-in starts dating back to late May. Aceves lasted no more than 6 innings in any of his replacement efforts, but has only yielded 1 earned in each of the three starts. He perfectly filled in the voids in the Red Sox pitching staff, as he gave Boston wins in each of his three starts as well.

Perhaps Felix Doubront has performed the best as of late, albeit going unnoticed. The Venezuelan, in his 4th year, has posted a 2.73 earned run average in June, and has not allowed more than 3 ERs in any of his 5 starts. Doubront, like the other pitchers, has played a huge part in picking up the slack for the Boston rotation.

The commonality between all four of these pitchers is that they all stepped up the quality of their games once Buchholz and Lester had their struggles, a jumpy from mediocrity displayed in previous months: their ERAs have all hovered around 3.00, and were instrumental in keeping the Red Sox a top team in the league.

The overall pitching consistency—sustained by these four, mostly underappreciated starters—has not only given the Red Sox a chance at the playoffs, but has given Boston sports fans hope.