Tuesday's Sox win over Tigers proved a few things

Tuesday's Sox win over Tigers proved a few things
September 4, 2013, 12:45 pm
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The calendar said September; the game shouted October.
      
It wouldn't be much of a stretch at all if the Red Sox and Detroit Tigers met in a month, either in the Division Series or even the American League Championship Series. With just over three weeks remaining in the regular season, the two teams own the two best records in the league and seem locks to reach the post-season.
      
But whether Tuesday's 2-1 Red Sox win was a preview of coming attractions, or just merely the next-to-last meeting of the year between two good teams, it was hard not to think about the playoffs.
      
The victory enabled the Red Sox to maintain their 5 1/2 game lead over second-place Tampa Bay, but it also served to spotlight three key areas that they'll need to be successful next month.
      
* Jon Lester
      
In what was unquestionably his best performance of the year, Lester outpitched Cy Young front-runner Max Scherzer with a brilliant start of his own -- one run over seven innings with a season-high nine strikeouts.
      
And it wasn't just what he did, but how he did it. Lester flashed a fastball that was consistently in the mid 90s, at times touching as high as 96-97 mph. That kind of life on his fastball hasn't been seen with such consistency all season, and it served to make his cutter doubly effective.
      
For a stretch coming out of the All-Star break, Lester seemed to use his cutter less often, having been burned by it so frequently in the starts leading up to the break, especially with two strikes.
      
In recent starts, however, Lester has been able to command it better and use it as a put-away pitch. Everything in his repertoire is improved when he can throw the fastball as hard as he did Tuesday and spot it so precisely (Lester didn't walk a batter in his seven innings of work).
      
And it wasn't lost on anyone that this was yet another huge outing after a loss. In such games this year, Lester is 9-1 with a 2.68 ERA.
      
"Jon was outstanding," Farrell said. "He's been our stopper all year. He was powerful, threw strikes, his cutter has come back to what it was a couple of years ago. I think when he goes out he's stepped up in those games when we needed to get back in a winning track, and he's done just that."
      
All along, the supposition has been that if Clay Buchholz rebounds from his three-month absence, he will be tabbed as the team's top starter in the playoffs, lined up to pitch Game 1.
      
But if Lester continues to pitch like this over his final four or so starts, it will be tough to not have him open a series.
      
* The set-up crew
      
This has seemed like a potential weak spot for the Sox. Starters are regularly pitching into or past the seventh inning, and Koji Uehara remains a lockdown closer in the ninth, with no earned runs allowed since, incredibly, June.
      
But the eighth inning has been another matter, especially as righthander Junichi Tazawa has proven to be unreliable over the last month, with a 4.05 ERA over his previous eight appearances.
      
So without the luxury of having Tazawa pitch the full eighth inning, Farrell went to a mix-and-match approach for the three outs he needed.
      
He showed enormous confidence in Brandon Workman by having him face Miguel Cabrera, the game's best hitter, to open the eighth. Workman got Cabrera on a routine flyout.
      
"Obviously, being put into a big situation like that," said Workman, "against one of the best, if not the best hitter in the game, it's a big spot, a spot like I like to be in. I like being put in (situations) like that. I was excited."
      
But not overly so, as he overcame falling behind 2-and-0 to get Cabrera to swing at fastballs outside.
      
Then it was on to lefty Craig Breslow, who lately has surpassed Tazawa when it comes to the having the manager's confidence. Breslow got lefty Prince Fielder to roll out to second before allowing a single to left by switch-hitter Victor Martinez.
      
Finally, Farrell turned to Tazawa to face the righthanded Omar Infante and Tazawa responded by recording a strikeout.
      
It seemed like Farrell was managing in the playoffs, given the moves he made that inning.
      
"Maybe the leverage on every pitch and every play," allowed Farrell, "yeah, that was a little bit more important because of the score and who we're going up against."
      
* Hitting with runners in scoring position
      
Too often this season, the Sox have failed in such spots, particularly against good teams and elite pitchers. That was the case as recently as Monday, when the team was 0-for-11 with runners in scoring position and squandered three different two-on, no-out chances.
      
On Tuesday, the Sox managed just two runs over Scherzer and didn't get many chances. But when Will Middlebrooks got an opportunity, he made the most of it, driving a first-pitch slider up the middle with runners at second and third to score the Sox' only two runs.
      
Middlebrooks' return from a nearly lost season remains a work in progress. Most nights, he hits ninth, an indication that there is work to be done.
      
But at the third baseman recounted the game's key at-bat, he reflected on his some changes he's made in his at-bats.
      
"I know a lot more now," Middlebrooks said after spending two months in Pawtucket. "If I'm getting beat with a fastball in, I'm not going to wait until the next day to go, 'Oh, this team's going to pitch me in.' I'm going to go up the next at-bat and expect that. Sometimes your approach has to change, not game to game but at-bat to at-bat. You just have to be able to adapt within an at-bat."
      
Which is what Middlebrooks did. He had struck out four times in his career against Scherzer, all on fastballs. He expected Scherzer might try to get ahead with a breaking pitch, so Middlebrooks was determined to pounce on the first pitch he saw.
      
"It's nice to get some results," he said. "I grinded through a couple months of changes in things, trying to get everything right back where it was. To finally get comfortable again and see some results, it's huge. It builds your confidence back up."

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