The eighth inning of Game 3 essentially came down to a tag team match: Junichi Tazawa and Koji Uehara versus Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder.
Boston’s bullpen tandem forced Detroit’s big boppers to tap out.
The Tigers trailed 1-0 in the bottom of the eighth inning Tuesday, but were in serious business once Torii Hunter singled into right field. Craig Breslow had walked Austin Jackson to begin the inning, and Hunter’s single off Tazawa put runners at the corners with one out for Detroit’s biggest sluggers.
The first battle featured Tazawa and Cabrera. Tazawa had been excellent in his first three innings — spread out over five appearances — of the postseason, but Cabrera is arguably the best hitter in baseball and momentum had suddenly shifted in Detroit’s favor. Despite the odds stacked against Tazawa, however, Boston’s setup man recorded the biggest out of his career.
Tazawa unleashed four straight outside fastballs to strike out Cabrera. Cabrera has been hobbling this postseason, and the expectation was that Tazawa might use his splitter in an effort to induce an inning-ending double play. Instead, Tazawa overpowered the reigning American League MVP.
“That was huge,” catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia said of Tazawa’s strikeout. “Cabrera is such a great hitter. One out, that’s a situation where he drives that. When he gets into situations where he can get an RBI, it’s tough to get him out, let alone strike him out. [Tazawa] did a great job of pumping the fastballs away and he’s so sneaky with that 94, 95 [mph] that it’s tough to hit.”
Uehara was ready to go in the Boston bullpen, so John Farrell could have made the move to his closer after Tazawa surrendered the one-out single to Hunter. Cabrera is 2-for-4 with two homers and three RBIs in his career against Uehara, though, so the Red Sox skipper stuck with Tazawa for what proved to be a game-changing at-bat.
“We liked the matchup with power against Cabrera,” Farrell said. “Cabrera has had good success against Koji in the past, hit a couple of balls out of the ballpark against him. And particularly after the base hit the other way by Torii to put them in the first and third situation, we felt power was the best way to go here. Whether he climbed the ladder away from him late or just stayed hard with him, it was a pivotal moment. You’re getting the best guy in baseball at the plate, trying to preserve a one‑run lead. And that was a swing moment for sure. ”
A swing moment indeed. But the Red Sox weren’t out of the weeds. It was up to Uehara to take care of Fielder to maintain the one-round lead.
Uehara wasted no time sitting down Fielder and stranding the potential tying run at third base. The Red Sox closer went with back-to-back fastballs before tossing a trademark splitter that fell off the table. Fielder came up empty despite a big league hack.
The Tigers made a little bit of noise in the ninth inning, as Victor Martinez led off with a single into center field. But Uehara got Jhonny Peralta to ground into a double play, and then struck out Alex Avila swinging to polish off the Red Sox’ 1-0 win, which gives Boston a 2-1 edge in the best-of-seven ALCS.
The eighth inning was clearly the Tigers’ chance to swing the series back in their favor, and Detroit failed to deliver a timely hit despite a very appetizing situation for one of the game’s most lethal offensive combinations.
Tazawa and Uehara were simply the superior duo this time around.