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BOSTON (CBS) — Justin Verlander spent the four years from 2009-12 as one of the very best pitchers in baseball. John Lackey spent that same time as a free-agent bust for the Red Sox, signing a five-year, $82 million contract in December 2009 and going 26-23 with a 5.26 ERA in his first two seasons and missing his third due to injury.
So on the surface, the matchup of Verlander and Lackey in Game 3 of the ALCS may seem like a mismatch … but not so fast.
This regular season, Verlander fell back down to earth a bit, posting a 13-12 record and a 3.46 ERA in 34 starts. Lackey, in a season of redemption, posted a 3.52 ERA in 29 starts, though a lack of run support led to a 10-13 record.
While Lackey hasn’t ever had the type of electric stuff that Verlander displays every five days, the right-hander has been able to get the job done all season long, and the Red Sox are hoping to see it on the field on Tuesday afternoon in Detroit.
“We’re talking about a guy that’s pitched at the highest level on the biggest stage that the game has to offer,” Red Sox manager John Farrell said of Lackey. “Given what he’s come through, I’m sure that he’ll relish the moments he’s out there, knowing that he’s come back from Tommy John [surgery]. The way he’s reshaped his own perception and certainly his body, and we’re looking forward to John being on the mound on Tuesday.”
Lackey has shone on that grand stage in the past. He owns a 3.35 ERA in 15 career postseason appearances, 13 of which have come as a starter. He didn’t pitch well last week in the ALDS against the Rays, when he allowed four runs in 5 1/3 innings, but his history of pitching during the postseason earlier in his career provides optimism that he won’t be consumed by the moment.
Verlander, on the other hand, has not been his usual self when the calendar shifts to October, evidenced by his 4.22 postseason ERA in 12 starts prior to this postseason. However, he was thoroughly dominant last week against the A’s, pitching 15 scoreless innings in two starts, meaning things won’t get any easier for a Red Sox offense that spent most of Games 1 and 2 swinging and missing.
But he isn’t expecting it to be easy either, especially given Boston’s ability to battle back.
“These are the two best teams in the American League,” Verlander said Monday. “We’ve made it to this point. When we played each other during the regular season, it was a dogfight. At this point in the season, nobody is going to give in. Nobody is going to give an inch.”
Starting pitching has been a major story line through the first two games of the series, with both Anibal Sanchez and Max Scherzer holding the Red Sox without a hit for the first five-plus innings. Sanchez had to leave after six, but the bullpen kept the Red Sox at bay to hang on for a 1-0 victory. Jon Lester pitched well for Boston, allowing just one run over 6 1/3 innings, but it wasn’t quite enough.
In Game 2, the dominance from Detroit’s pitchers continued, with soon-to-be Cy Young winner Max Scherzer pushing his no-hit bid into the sixth inning. Scherzer left the game after seven innings, having allowed one run on two hits while striking out 13. A quartet of relievers combined to let the tying runs cross the plate in the eighth, before Rick Porcello gave up the winning run in the ninth.
That bullpen failure may put even more pressure on Verlander to be the man for Detroit. Meanwhile the Red Sox, who struggled throughout the season to provide Lackey with any runs, will need to buck that trend in addition to trying to limit their strikeouts (32 in two games).
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