ALCS Game 3 Preview: Red Sox at Tigers

Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

How will Justin Verlander follow up his excellent performance in Oakland against the Boston Red Sox tonight? John Lackey starts for Boston in a pivotal Game Three matchup.

Boston Red Sox at Detroit Tigers

Series: 1-1

Time/Place: 4:00 p.m., Comerica Park

SB Nation blog: Over the Monster

Media: FOX, Tigers Radio Network

Pitching Matchup: RHP John Lackey (10-13, 3.52 ERA) vs. RHP Justin Verlander (13-12, 3.46 ERA)

Pitcher GS IP K/9 BB/9 HR/9 WHIP FIP SIERA fWAR
Lackey 29 189.1 7.65 1.90 1.24 1.16 3.86 3.56 3.2
Verlander 34 218.1 8.95 3.09 0.78 1.31 3.28 3.68 5.2

Lackey's return to form in 2013 is one of the biggest reasons why the Red Sox are playing in this series. After a rough three seasons in Boston -- and that's putting it nicely -- Lackey returned from Tommy John surgery to put up the following numbers in 2013:

  • 3.52 ERA, his best since 2007
  • 1.16 WHIP, the best of his career
  • 7.65 strikeouts per nine innings, his best rate since 2006
  • 1.90 walks per nine innings, the lowest rate of his career

The amazing part? He did this in spite of allowing a 4.48 ERA, 4.60 FIP, and 1.65 home runs per nine innings in 16 road starts this year. It wasn't just homers either; Lackey allowed a .312 on-base percentage on the road, nearly 50 points higher than his OBP at Fenway Park.

Another reason for optimism: Lackey hasn't been the same pitcher over the past few months. After posting a sparkling 2.78 ERA and 1.14 WHIP in the first half, he fell back to earth with a 4.35 ERA in the second half. His strikeout rate fell by nearly 4% and his strand rate dropped from 82.3% to 71.0%. He also allowed more extra base hits (34 to 32) in three fewer starts, resulting in a 39 point increase in slugging average. However, it's worth noting that his FIP splits -- 3.82 in the first half, 3.91 in the second -- are nearly identical thanks to a drop in walk rate.

Lackey's numbers against the Tigers were slightly better than his overall stats this year. He allowed five runs in 14 1/3 innings and struck out 10 hitters compared to just two walks. His better start came at Comerica Park, oddly enough, where he was in line to pick up a win after allowing two runs in seven innings before Jhonny Peralta hit a walk-off home run off then-closer Andrew Bailey. Lackey's start at Fenway Park in September also ended in a loss thanks to seven shutout innings from Doug Fister.

As Boston fans will be quick to point out today, Verlander's lone start against them this season didn't go too well. He allowed four runs in five innings, walking three while striking out four. However, as Tigers fans will be quick to reply, Verlander wasn't exactly himself for most of the regular season. Among other things, his 2.00 strikeout-to-walk ratio in June was his second-worst month of the season, bested (for lack of a better word) only by July's abysmal 1.41 mark.

Question of the day: Which Lackey shows up for Boston?

Will the Tigers face the Lackey that held them to a 3.14 ERA this season and is 6-3 with a 3.86 ERA and 1.32 WHIP against the Tigers in his career? Or the guy that struggled down the stretch -- a typical phenomenon with pitchers the first year after Tommy John -- with a 4.98 ERA and five home runs allowed in September? His first playoff start wasn't particularly encouraging either. He allowed four runs on seven hits and three walks in 5 1/3 innings but picked up a win thanks to six runs of support in the first five innings.

Outlook

Speaking of pitchers showing up, it will be interesting to see how Verlander follows up his performance in Oakland. Last season, he dominated a hapless New York Yankees lineup to the tune of one run in eight innings in his next start, but only had three strikeouts. Verlander's career numbers against the Sox aren't too bad, but the .370/.433/.741 line allowed to David Ortiz in 30 plate appearances is slightly terrifying. Still, with the Red Sox largely unable to solve Tigers pitching when changeups aren't served to them on silver platters and the offense back at Comerica, I think the results play out as expected.

Prediction

Verlander continues to shine and the Tigers take Game 3.

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