GAME 5: RED SOX 4, TIGERS 3
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The Red Sox sit one victory away from the American League pennant, one victory away from a berth in the World Series. So when someone asked Dustin Pedroia if the Sox "smell blood," he dropped the Belichickian cliche mongering for a second and told it like it is.
"We always smell blood, man," he said. "That's like our 103rd win or something. We're pretty good."
Thursday's 4-3 vanquishing of the Tigers at Comerica Park was victory number 103 -- 97 in the regular season, 3 in the ALDS over the Rays and now 3 in the ALCS over Detroit -- but it was more than that. It was a victory that gave them a 3-2 series lead. It was a victory that sends them back to Fenway Park needing to win one of two games to get back to the World Series for the third time since 2004. And it was a victory in which all the things that make them "pretty good", as Pedroia put it, were on display.
Clutch hitting. Stout if not overpowering starting pitching. Superb defense when they needed it most. And, at the back end, a light's-out closer who extinguished Detroit's building momentum as easily as snuffing out the light of a candle.
The Tigers, who had fallen behind 4-0, had closed to within 4-3 with single runs in the fifth, sixth and seventh innings. Detroit even had the go-ahead run at the plate in the seventh in the person of Miguel Cabrera. But Junichi Tazawa -- as he had in Game 3 -- outdueled Cabrera at one of the game's crucial moments, getting a run-scoring double play that made the score 4-3 but wiped all runners off the bases.
Then it was Koji Time. Manager John Farrell summoned Uehara with nobody on and one out in the eighth for a rare five-out save, and he delivered . . . with ease. He struck out the two batters he faced in the eighth, then set down the Tigers easily 1-2-3 in the ninth to nail down the victory.
"He's been outstanding," marveled Farrell.
The Sox had built their lead early, starting with a mammoth, 445-foot home run to dead center field by Napoli (3-for-4) leading off the second that had jaws dropping in both dugouts.
"I never seen a ball hit that hard, ever," said David Ortiz in amazement. "That ball was crushed, especially in that weather. Rainy and cold . . . it's unbelievable."
Jonny Gomes then reached on an error by Cabrera at third base and, one out later, Xander Bogaerts -- who on this night became the youngest player ever to start a postseason game for the Red Sox -- doubled. The Sox would push them both across on RBI hits by David Ross and Jacoby Ellsbury as they moved in front, 3-0.
They added another run in the third when Napoli doubled, moved to third on a grounder by Gomes, and scored on a wild pitch by Tiger starter Anibal Sanchez.
Prior to the four-run outburst, the Sox had been the beneficiary of a Cabrera baserunning blunder in the bottom of the first. Running from second base, he ignored the stop sign of third-base coach Tom Brookens on a single to shallow left by Jhonny Peralta and was thrown out at the plate by Gomes by about 15 feet for the third out. After that, the Sox staked starter Jon Lester to the four-run lead.
But Lester wasn't sharp on this night. He was bailed out of the fourth when Brayan Pena grounded into an inning-ending double play with runners at first and second and one out. Then he was touched for the first Detroit run with two outs in the fifth when Cabrera singled home Austin Jackson, who had walked and been sacrificed to second by Jose Iglesias.
Lester wasn't given the chance to work out of his next jam, which he created in the sixth by walking leadoff hitter Victor Martinez and allowing a one-out single to Omar Infante. Tazawa was summoned -- an inning earlier than usual -- and Pena, the first batter he faced, ripped his first pitch into right field for an RBI single that made the score 4-2. But another double play, a 5-4-3 turned nicely by the Sox, got Tazawa out of the jam.
Farrell had said late in the regular season that he would no longer bring Tazawa back out for the start of an inning after he'd completed the previous one -- Tazawa been knocked around in such situations several times this year, the last on Sept. 28 in Baltimore -- but with nine outs to go and unwilling to entrust that heavy a workload to Craig Breslow and Uehara, Farrell clearly felt he had no choice. His fears were well-founded; back-to-back singles by Iglesias and Torii Hunter put runners at first and third with no out with one of the most dangerous hitters on the planet, Cabrera, coming to the plate.
The Red Sox. however, had won the Tazawa/Cabrera matchup in Game 3, when Tazawa struck out the Tiger slugger with the go-ahead runs on base in the eighth inning. And it went in their favor again Thursday night: Tazawa got Cabrera to ground into a Dustin Pedroia-to-Napoli double play that scored Iglesias to make it 4-3, but also cleared the bases.
From there, Farrell called on Breslow for two outs, then Uehara for five. The pair retired all seven batters they faced, and the Sox nailed down the victory that moved them to within one more victory of the World Series.
They're all well aware, however, that the journey isn't over.
"Of course I want to get back [to the World Series]," said Napoli, who made it in 2011 with Texas. "But we're not getting too far ahead of ourselves here . . . We're in a good position now, but we still have business to take care of.
"We feel good about it," said the politically correct Pedroia prior to his burst of candor, "[but] we're not going to relax, by any means."
Gomes was best at putting what they've achieved to this point in perspective.
"Well, if we finish this whole thing with 103 wins, I don't think there's going to be too many happy players and coaches in this clubhouse," he said. "Hundred, hundred and three [wins], whatever it is, that's not our goal . . .
"We busted our butts for 162 [regular-season games] to [finish first overall in the American League and] get home-field advantage. Now we got to use it."
They get their first chance on Saturday.