DETROIT -- Names.
The Tigers have some big ones. It's why THE Justin Verlander was getting so much attention heading into Game 3 of the American League Championship Series. It's why THE Miguel Cabrera was the last hitter most any pitcher wanted to see with runners on first and third in the eighth inning and your team leading by just a single run.
There are others. Anibal Sanchez. Max Scherzer. Victor Martinez. Torii Hunter. Jhonny Peralta.
As it's turning out, the Tigers may have the biggest names, but, in the case of this best-of-seven series, not the right ones.
"That’s how we’ve been all year and that’s how we like it," Red Sox catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia said after his team's first 1-0 win of the season. "They counted out before the season started. They counted us out after the first month. The trade deadline they started to count us out. At the end of the season they started to count us out. We’re used to it. We’re not focusing on what everybody is thinking. We know what we have to do and what we’re up against. We don’t need help from the media."
The baseball world sure didn't suggest the Red Sox had the right name in this latest matchup. The whole "no disrespect to John Lackey, but …" echoed through every media outlet covering this ALCS. That was because of a pretty powerful name -- as the Oakland A's can attest to -- in Verlander.
It wasn't a question if the Red Sox could beat the Tigers, but rather if they could get the better of Verlander. Way down the list of analysis was any question regarding if Detroit could best Lackey. The Sox starter had a nice season, and carried a top-tier contract, but he wasn't the 2011 AL Cy Young and MVP winner and 2012 Cy Young runner-up who was coming off a dominant series-clinching start.
But then Jake Peavy spoke up, and whispers started circulating.
"Johnny's a stud, John Lackey is a stud. And it's been funny for me to watch all the coverage of the game coming in. I have heard John Lackey's name mentioned three or four times," Peavy said prior to Game 3. "Almost like we didn't have a starter going today. Our starter is pretty good, too. Anybody as a rookie that wins Game 7 of the World Series, you can't get any bigger of a stage. And for him to go out there at 22, 23 years old, however old he was, shows you what this guy is made of. Everybody in that clubhouse loves John, loves his demeanor, makeup, he's got that old school Texan makeup that we all love, Nolan Ryan kind of attitude.
"John is a gamer. John is going to go out, and I promise you this, just like I said, we understand what kind of challenge we have going against Justin Verlander, it's no secret. Justin is probably the best in the game right now. But at that same time, there ain't any part of John Lackey that doesn't think he's going to win today and will do anything he can possibly do to make that happen. It's fun to go to battle when you have guys who care and you know are going to give the kind of effort that John Lackey is going to give today."
A funny thing happened a few hours later: Lackey outpitched Verlander. Not by much, but by enough.
Mike Napoli hit a home run. Craig Breslow, Junichi Tazawa and Koji Uehara finished things off with 2 1/3 innings of scoreless relief. Johnny Gomes made a nice, diving catch. Saltalamacchia executed game-changing strategies behind the plate. And, oh, Lackey lowered the Sox starters' ERA to 2.89 in the ALCS' three games by not allowing a run over 6 2/3 frames.
Peavy opened the door with his pregame comments. Now, after the game, his teammates were ready to run through the opening without hesitation.
"It’s true," Red Sox starter Jon Lester said when asked about Peavy's analysis. "You turn on any station that was covering the game and it was, 'Justin Verlander vs. the Red Sox.' Our guy is pretty good. He’s done it a time or two, as well. Not to take anything away from Verlander. I don’t know if Lack saw that or not, but that’s almost a slap in the face to him. The guy has been around a long time. It’s not like he’s a rookie who just showed up. The guy has been around the block a few times and pitched in some big games, and won some big games for a lot of teams. I think Peav hit the nail on the head on that one."
The numbers are the numbers. They are indisputable. After Verlander's outing, the Tigers starters have allowed two runs on six hits over 21 innings, striking out 35.
But then there is the altered perception.
Gone is the aura of the names wearing the Detroit uniform, and in its place is the realization that those guys competing against Jim Leyland's stars might have something going for them, as well.
"Absolutely. I think [Lackey] just did it," Lester said when asked if the Red Sox staff sent a message to not sleep on the Boston starters. "We don't need to sit here and talk about it. That's not this team. This team has never done that. Our biggest thing with this is just going out and keep proving people wrong. We were supposed to finish last this year and now we're one of two teams left in the American League.
"Lack is not going to say anything in postgame. Peav's not going to say anything. I'm not going to say anything tomorrow. Just go out and do your job. We don't need to talk about it. But we've been pretty good this year, too. If [the media] wants to take us lightly, that's fine. That's fine."
Finding ways to discount the Red Sox' collection of characters is getting increasingly more difficult.
Yes, the Sox hitters are having their problems. They are hitting a collective .133 in the ALCS, having struck out 43 times in just 90 at-bats while missing on 75 of their 204 swings.
But, news flash: Nobody at this level of the playoffs is hitting.
The four teams left in the league championship series have a combined batting average of .185, striking out 139 times with just 40 walks. You just need pitchers who can keep up, which is exactly what the Red Sox have proved they possess.
And, through three games, the Red Sox not only know they can keep pace, but they can find a way to stay a step ahead. In the end, the team without the biggest names is coming up short when it comes to roll call.
The top two hitters in the Tigers lineup -- Austin Jackson and Torii Hunter -- are a combined 4-for-27 with one walk. The meat of the Detroit order failed to come through when it counted the most in the eighth Tuesday night. With a pair of runners on and one out, Tazawa fanned Cabrera on a series of outside fastballs before Uehara came on to strikeout Fielder on three pitches.
So, by the time the ninth inning rolled around, Verlander was on the bench without any hope of claiming a win, with Cabrera and Fielder also having missed their chance to live up the hype.
For those keeping score, that's three players who are riding contracts guaranteed to pay them more than $346 million failing to stop the Red Sox from stealing the headlines.
"We’ve done a good job," Lester said, "of keeping the damage guys from doing a lot of damage."
The series might change. The Red Sox still need to keep beating some pretty big names. But, for now, Lackey offered a reminder that we might have been focusing on the wrong names.
"[Lackey's] resume gets overlooked in a game like this," Peavy said. "It has nothing to do with the way he pitched other than that he was ready for the stage."