"You know how it is in the playoffs. The manager is always going to throw the best horses out there." -- Red Sox designated hitter David Ortiz
DETROIT -- Thursday afternoon, Will Middlebrooks wasn't a happy camper. He had been told earlier in the day that he would not be included in the Red Sox' starting lineup for Game 5 of the American League Championship Series.
"Who would be?" Middlebrooks said when asked to confirm that he wasn't happy about it. "But at the same time, it's a team game, we're here to win. I trust their decision."
At this point, trusting these decisions has been an increasingly more turnkey exercise. It's just that Thursday night's 4-3 Red Sox win over the Tigers was able to offer the latest wave of reminders.
The postseason blueprint has been proven to be structurally sound.
For example ...
Red Sox manager John Farrell made the call to sit Middlebrooks, he of the 4-for-23 postseason. In the third baseman's place would be rookie Xander Bogaerts, the ultra-talented infielder with just 49 major league at-bats.
"He rakes," noted Red Sox second baseman Dustin Pedroia of Bogaerts.
The move paid off right away, with Bogaerts contributing to the Sox' three-run second inning with a double. The 21-year-old would also proceed to hold his own at third, helping halt a sixth-inning threat by starting a smoothly executed, 5-4-3, inning-ending double play.
Then came the ninth, when the decision -- and theme of the postseason -- would be defined.
With the Sox clinging to a one-run lead, Bogaerts led off the frame by working a walk (his third in eight postseason plate appearances). Farrell immediately pinch-ran Middlebrooks for the rookie, a move that, on the surface, seemed somewhat curious considering Bogaerts was the indisputable faster runner, and solid enough of a defender that a defensive replacement might not be a priority.
But, as has been the case with most of Farrell's key decisions this postseason, the true explanation lies far from surface level.
One of the areas that the organization was well aware Bogaerts had been lagging behind in due to his World Baseball Classic-induced absence from spring training is baserunning. In this case, there would be a very specific opportunity for the Red Sox on the bases, one which Middlebrooks was better prepared to execute. (That, along with what Farrell perceived as an upgrade at the position due to familiarity, led to the move.)
David Ross, an above-average bunter, would be pushing a bunt toward third. Middlebrooks was well aware that not only would third baseman Miguel Cabrera be charging, but shortstop Jose Iglesias' responsibility would be to cover second. That left third base open until catcher Brayan Pena could arrive on the scene.
So, without breaking stride, Middlebrooks stormed around second and slid safely into third base. And while he didn't make it home for an insurance run, another piece of the blueprint had been safely planted.
"My main objective was just to get to second base, getting into scoring position with the one out. I thought about it, but then thought, it's probably not going to happen," Middlebrooks said. "When I got 20 feet from second, I was like, all right I'm not going to slow down, I'm just going to try to get after this.
"I'm not used to coming off the bench. My biggest thing is trying to stay focused. I tried to go through my normal pregame routine. I went out on the field and ran and threw and everything just to keep my head in the right place. It's hard not to hit that switch. I was trying to keep it on."
When it was all said and done, and the Red Sox found themselves leaving Detroit with a 3-2 series lead, another move had been vindicated.
But there has been a lot of that lately. For instance …
THE RELIANCE ON STEPHEN DREW
There might be a game in the near future when Drew's offensive struggles become too much for the Red Sox to carry against a certain matchup. But even with the shortstop going 0-for-4 with two more strikeouts -- making him 1-for-17 with eight punchouts in the series -- there was a key moment that might have justified the decision to keep the lefty hitter in the lineup.
In the fourth inning, and the Tigers mounting one of their first real threats thanks to runners on first and second and one out, Pena grounded a ball back to pitcher Jon Lester. Typically, such a play would be viewed an automatic 1-6-3 double play. But because of the pitcher's difficulties throwing to bases, it was anything but routine.
Lester's toss sailed wide, to the shortstop side. Drew reacted quickly, lunging to gather in the ball while somehow keeping his foot on the bag for the force. In one motion he managed to relay a throw to first baseman Mike Napoli, whose scoop completed the improbable double play.
It was a series of events that could have easily resulted in something disastrous for the Sox. It was also a play that could have easily not been made if the call was for the inexperienced Bogaerts to man shortstop.
"Looking back earlier in the season, working on things, knowing how Lester throws to second, that was in my mind," Drew said. "It was tough because in my mind I was still trying to reach for the bag but knowing the runner's coming into second. … With the throw kind of tailing toward left field it was in my mind that I had to search for the bag. I'm not even looking at the bag. I'm looking at the throw and trying to do it at the same time.
"Looking back, it's a huge out. It was just one of those plays that worked out, with Nap picking the ball. I had no legs when I was tagging the bag, having to throw the ball with just my upper body and didn't have any strength behind the ball. Fortunately Nap made a good pick for us."
INTEGRATING DAVID ROSS INTO THE CATCHING PICTURE
Ross was in Thursday night's lineup primarily because of his work with Lester, a pitcher he has helped steer through what is now three standout starts against the Tigers.
But Ross -- the catcher who was one of general manager Ben Cherington's first targets when last offseason's free agency period opened up -- supplied so much more than just guidance behind the plate.
Ross notched an RBI double for the Red Sox' second run in the second inning, later adding a single and the ninth-inning sacrifice bunt. There was also a sturdy collision at home plate with his catching counterpart, Alex Avila, along with a message-sending takeout slide of Iglesias at second.
Ross, he of the two concussions this season, also stood his ground as the behemoth that is Cabrera plowed into him in attempt to score the game's first run in the first inning. ("Well, once I step on that field, I'm not worried about getting injured. If you play scared or trying not to get hurt, you're probably going to get hurt," he said.)
Despite Jarrod Saltalamacchia's well-deserved starting status, playing Ross on this day was the right move.
"We smell victory right now. That's all we smell," he said. "We'll get back to Boston and start working on Game 6. We're going to focus on having a good time tonight, this plane right back, get rested up. We've got a lot of work ahead of us."
JONNY GOMES JUST KEEPS ON WINNING
Despite the right-hander on the mound, Farrell chose to go with Gomes as his left fielder in Game 5.
The righty batter went 0-for-4 and is hitting just .190 for the postseason. But, once again, he seemingly was in the middle of some key moments. It's no coincidence the Red Sox are 6-2 in playoff games Gomes has participated in.
While Gomes did score another run, giving him five in eight postseason games, it was his defense that stood out this time around. It was the left fielder's throw to home on Jhonny Peralta's single that nailed Cabrera, keeping the game scoreless heading into a pivotal second inning.
"I wasn’t surprised. I think on the offensive side, I think we were going to have the opportunity to take a crack at it," Gomes said. "It was just getting a tight grip. When you have a quick transfer, you have to grab all four seams when the ball is wet. I just squeezed the heck out of it and threw it as hard as I could."
The combination of Gomes and Nava is hitting just .233 (7-for-30) without a home run throughout the postseason. But the combo's work in left field has been stellar, allowing Farrell to mix and match as he sees fit.
"Any opportunity to take runners and take runs off the board is a huge boost," Gomes said. "Playoffs is all about momentum."
THIS BULLPEN THING IS WORKING OUT
Once again Farrell made what could have been perceived as a quick hook with his starting pitcher, taking out Jon Lester after he allowed just two runs and threw 96 pitches.
But the manager has stayed consistent in his approach.
As with the case with John Lackey two nights before, Farrell identified that Lester's stuff was backing up a bit. That, accompanied with Pena's success against the lefty, led to Junichi Tazawa coming on with one out in the sixth.
Then came the matchups. Tazawa managed to induce two double plays (matching his regular-season total), including once again getting the better of Miguel Cabrera with runners on first and second. That paved the way for Craig Breslow, who, after getting both of his batters, has pitched six scoreless innings in the postseason while stranding all three of his inherited runners.
And finally came Koji Uehara.
The closer managed his third five-out save of the season, needing 27 pitches to finish things off. While he pitched his usual 1-2-3 ninth, it was the final two outs in the eighth that highlighted Farrell's continued strategy of timing each reliever's appearance. Uehara came on to strike out two middle-of-the-order threats, Jhonny Peralta and Omar Infante, paving the way for the rocking-chair ninth.
For the postseason, the Red Sox relievers have allowed just three runs over 28 innings, letting three of their 18 inherited runners to score.
"Maybe it's the same five outs, numbers-wise, but it was completely different because it was the playoffs," Uehara said through a translator. "I knew that I'd be going out. That hadn't changed going into the playoffs. I knew that could be the case."
Just as Uehara, and the Red Sox, predicted. And now they're one win away from the World Series.
"It's what we do," said Pedroia, "show up and win."