It was the Tigers' dream scenario. Last of the eighth inning. Tying run on third. Go-ahead run on first. One out. Coming to the plate: Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder.
The Red Sox, went the conventional wisdom, had the bullpen edge in this ALCS, but it was the 'pen that had set up this mess. Craig Breslow had walked Austin Jackson with one out and was replaced by Junichi Tazawa, who gave up a single to right by Torii Hunter that moved Jackson to third. Now it was a matchup -- Tazawa vs. Cabrera -- that no one would have said favored Boston.
And Tazawa struck out Cabrera. Two out.
"[You've got] the best guy in baseball at the plate [while you're] trying to preserve a one-run lead," marveled manager John Farrell of Tazawa. "That was a swing moment for sure."
Then Farrell threw down his ace, bringing in Koji Uehara.
Three pitches to Prince Fielder. Three strikes. Three outs.
One of the more dramatic moments in Red Sox postseason history had turned in the Sox' favor, and they were able to parlay it into a 1-0 victory in Game 3 of the ALCS Tuesday at Comerica Park in Detroit. They now lead the best-of-seven series, 2-1.
"We're all about winning, man," said Dustin Pedroia. "Big win for us."
The only run of the game was delivered by Mike Napoli, who broke up a scoreless pitching duel between John Lackey and Justin Verlander with a home run in the seventh. Uehara nailed it down with a scoreless ninth, surviving a leadoff single by Victor Martinez by getting Jhonny Peralta to ground into a 6-4-3 double play.
Lackey was magnificent, keeping the Tigers off-balance with near-pinpoint control and a willingness to throw any pitch on virtually any count. Perhaps his gutsiest pitch: A 3-and-0 curveball to Peralta with a runner on first and one out in the bottom of the seventh that he was able to drop over at the knees for a strike, leading eventually to a fly to right for the second out. He was lifted -- to his chagrin (as any lip readers will tell you) -- after that batter, but he'd gotten the game to the bullpen in the late innings with a lead.
"I thought Lackey changed speeds [and] made pitches all day long," said Tigers manager Jim Leyland. "He was terrific, actually."
"He located," said Pedroia. "His fastball had life on it, his cutter, his curveball was good early. He's a big-game pitcher. I faced him early on in the playoffs in my career" -- in 2007, '08 and '09, when Lackey was with the Angels -- "and you don't want to face a guy like that. He knows how to win."
Lackey had handed the game to his relievers after 6 2/3 shutout innings, allowing only four hits with no walks and eight strikeouts. Two of the hits -- singles by Hunter and Fielder -- came in the first inning, but he escaped the two-on/two-on jam by retiring Martinez on a fly ball to center. Lackey had one other dicey moment; he allowed a leadoff double in the fifth to Peralta, who went to third on a grounder to the right side by Alex Avila. But Lackey struck out Omar Infante for the second out, then left Peralta stranded when he induced a grounder to second from Andy Dirks for the final out.
He was rewarded for his efforts in the top of the seventh when Napoli, who'd struck out in his first two at-bats, launched a home run over the fence in left-center, putting the Red Sox in front, 1-0.
"When he put that swing on it . . . it was pretty awesome," said Pedroia.
Verlander had -- like all other Tiger starters in this series -- seemed nearly unhittable to that point. He didn't take a no-hitter into the ninth inning, as the Tigers had Saturday night, or into the sixth, as they had Sunday; he went 5 1/3 innings before surrendering a single to Jacoby Ellsbury. And he didn't strike out 17, like they did in Game 1, or 15, like Game 2; he only fanned 10. (He did, however, tie an MLB postseason record by striking out six in a row in the second and third innings.)
But he was matched pitch-for-pitch by Lackey, and their pitching lines were nearly identical after six innings. (6/2/0/0/1/8 for Verlander, 6/3/0/0/0/8 for Lackey.) And it was Verlander who blinked first, surrendering the one-out homer to Napoli in the seventh.