BOSTON – With up to two games left in the best-of-seven ALCS, the Tigers are one loss away from elimination. If they are to advance to the World Series, for a return trip after being swept by the Giants last season, they must win both remaining games against the Red Sox at Fenway Park.
Not an easy task, but they have exactly the starting pitchers they would want for these two games, with Max Scherzer in Game 6 on Saturday and Justin Verlander in Game 7 on Sunday.
First, it will be up to Scherzer -- who finished the regular season with a record of 21-3 and a sterling 2.90 ERA -- to stop the Sox. The Cy Young Award candidate is 2-0 with a 2.25 ERA in three postseason season starts. Scherzer pitched a gem against the Sox in Game 2, holding the Boston’s formidable lineup hitless through 5 2/3 innings, recording 13 strikeouts, giving up just one run and two hits before leaving after seven innings.
But the Tigers bullpen imploded. With Scherzer out of the game, David Ortiz’s eighth-inning grand slam and Jarrod Saltalamacchia’s walk-off single in the ninth off closer Joaquin Benoit delivered Boston’s come-from-way-behind win.
Will the Sox be able to pull out another win in game started by Scherzer?
Facing the same lineup in a short time span presents challenges for both the pitcher and the batters.
“It changes because they're familiar with what I did. Obviously they're going to be looking through the film and watching what I did, the sequences, patterns, when I threw off speed pitches, when I didn't. Obviously I've got to be ahead of the curve.
“Obviously I don't know exactly what I'm going to do. But there will be things I do differently.”
The Tigers will be in a must-win situation. For Scherzer, though, that’s nothing new.
“The games are different but the mentality is the same,” he said. “Every game is a must win. I haven't played a game yet where it hasn't been a must win situation for us. For me it's the same mentality every single time we take the field.”
It will be imperative for him to maintain his focus, keep his emotions in check.
“It's pretty easy. You just go out there and pitch your game,” he said. “Baseball is still the same, 60 feet and 6 inches, and you have to throw strikes. The expectations and pressure doesn't mean you change. That's something that's always been instilled in me, and doesn't matter what the situation or what the game means, I'm always going to approach the game the same way.”
And Fenway will present its own unique set of challenges. If Scherzer is able to stifle the Sox lineup as he did in Game 2, though, those challenges will be minimized.
“Fenway Park is a fun place to pitch in,” he said. “You've got 38,000 fans all cheering against you. It's an intense atmosphere. But really, the dimensions is something that does actually come into play, just because you can feel that wall is right behind you. So there's just no room for error.
“A routine fly ball can be a double in Fenway Park. So you've got to make sure you always execute pitches throughout the whole game.”
Because in a must-win game, one pitch can mean the difference.
“Analyzing it like that is correct,” he said. “The game can come down to one pitch. But when you're actually out there on the mound and when you're pitching, you can't be worrying about the margin of error or whatnot. You have to go with your strengths and what you believe is the right pitch and keep executing pitches.
“It's a mental challenge now. You know you're facing great lineups. I know Boston is a great lineup. You have to execute from pitch 1 all the way to your last pitch. And that's a challenge is how many times you can do that.”
The Tigers need him to do that for one more time – at least.