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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The Complex of Confidence: Boston Red Sox 7/5

When Mike Napoli smacked an unnecessary homer into deep-center on Friday night, it swiped a save opportunity away from Red Sox reliever Koji Uehara.

Uehara barely missed out on a save on Friday.

Uehara barely missed out on a save on Friday.

Considering all the uncertainty and frustration surrounding Boston’s closer situation this year–the one weak link–and the fact that Uehara had converted on 4 of his last 6 save chances, just an addition to a stat total would be immensely beneficial to an area desperate for hope. Confidence in the closer role–whether in the eyes of manager John Farrell or Uehara himself–is not necessarily wholly defined by a simple change in a statistical category: quality of performance, which cannot be factually measured, is always more telling. Yet the Achilles’ Heel that is the reliever corps for the Red Sox must seek a boost from any way possible, even if that means attentiveness towards the boxscore.

Napoli's home run certainly broke his recent streak of frustration.

Napoli’s home run certainly broke his recent streak of frustration.

So when Napoli increased Boston’ lead to 4 runs, the opportunity for recording a save flew out of the window for Uehara. But if to further abide by this path of scratching out confidence, the home run may be more a blessing in disguise, despite eliminating a potential “lift” for Uehara.

After batting in runs like no other hitter in the AL, and eclipsing any expectations set forth in the preseason, Napoli has undoubtedly experienced a slump in the last few weeks. The 440 ft bomb to center against the Angels marked his first homer since June 1st, comprising a drought for the slugger that lasted over a month. Nearly all his major statistical numbers have endured a steady decline from a month-to-month basis as well.

Yet as we see too much in sports, an insignificant occurrence such as blasting a home run that merely stretched a lead by one run, could serve as an essential boost in confidence–one lift that Napoli could use to build upon, and revitalize his sinking 2013 season.

In conclusion, while a chance to augment confidence in one area may be lost for the time being, an opportunity taken in another dimension may prove valuable beyond a statistical measurement.

Dustin Pedroia: The Exemplar Athlete

And to think the Red Sox considered to include their 2nd baseman during their offseason overhaul just a short time ago.

Before Boston’s game at Philadelphia on Wednesday, Red Sox manager John Farrell told reporters that Dustin Pedroia sustained a torn ligament in his thumb earlier this year, opted out of a potential surgery, and continued to play on with his injury. Up to this point, there are no signs of any regression from Pedroia as a result of his ailing thumb, who in fact has better numbers in nearly every statistical category at this point in the season than at the same time last year.

This isn’t the first time the heart-and-soul of the Red Sox has put his team ahead of his own needs, but goes to show once again the kind of special player and part of an organization he is. His willingness to play through his pain and therefore securing early-season success for Boston–an unselfishness unique to the Red Sox over the past few years–is a quality every athlete should aspire to embody.

The decision by Pedroia is not only a testament to his own character–and growing figure as a hallowed Boston sports legend–but also a valuable attitude to the Red Sox locker room. A selfless act such as fighting through a major thumb injury only promotes other teammates to do the same if they were caught in a similar situation: to shift their focus away from themselves and more towards the team. Pedroia, through his actions, has essentially become a source for improving a Boston locker room environment that is still going through a healing process.