Three at bats by Miguel Cabrera against Junichi Tazawa went a long way in determining the outcome of the ALCS. Had the Red Sox set-up man not gotten the better of baseball’s best hitter, there is a good chance the Tigers would be facing the Cardinals in the World Series.
Cabrera is known for hitting fastballs a long way. Tazawa got him out by working away with fastballs.
In Game 3, with runners on the corners and one out in the eighth inning of 1-0 game, Tazawa struck out Cabrera on a 94-mph fastball on a 1-2 count. The Red Sox held on for a 1-0 win.
In Game 5, with runners on the corners with one out in the seventh inning of a 4-2 game, Tazawa got Cabrera to ground into a 4-6-3 double play on a 94-mph fastball on a 1-0 count. The Red Sox hung on to win 4-3.
In Game 6, with runners on first and second with two out in the seventh inning of a 2-1 game, Tazawa got Cabrera to ground out to shortstop on a 94-mph fastball on a 1-0 count. The Red Sox rallied from the one-run deficit to win 5-2.
Tazawa features a splitter, which he utilized 28 percent of the time in the regular season, but all seven pitches he threw to Cabrera were fastballs. That was the game plan, and not just for the 27-year-old reliever. The Red Sox attacked the hobbled slugger with hard stuff the entire series.
Of the 89 pitches the Red Sox threw Cabrera in the ALCS, 53 were four-seam fastballs, 16 were cutters, and 12 were two-seam fastballs. They also threw three curves, three changeups, and two sliders. Categorizing a cutter as a variation of the fastball, 91 percent of the pitches Cabrera saw were fastballs.
Cabrera’s Game 2 home run, off Clay Buchholz, came on a changeup. The lone home run he hit against Boston in the regular season came on a Jon Lester changeup.
“I didn’t want us to make mistakes with off-speed to him,” explained Red Sox pitching coach Juan Nieves. “We attacked him with a lot of fastballs, and a lot of quick breaks, as opposed to slower stuff in the zone. To me, Miggy is never hurt. He could be on crutches and still be feared.”
He was clearly hurt. That fact shouldn’t be downplayed. A healthy Cabrera would likely have done far more damage than five singles and one home run — with seven strikeouts — in 22 ALCS at bats. Yesterday it was disclosed he was playing with a groin tear that may require surgery.
According to Torey Lovullo, Miggy’s malady had a direct impact on how Red Sox pitchers went after him.
“We knew he was having trouble getting to certain pitches at certain times,” said the Boston bench coach. “I don’t know exactly what his injury is, but it hindered him from getting on his legs and extending. He couldn’t get to a power position, so we kept attacking him that way. We pitched him differently than we did during the regular season, and the adjustments we made were key.”
Those adjustments included working off the plate. The Game 3 strikeout against Tazawa came on a pitch that was outside, and Cabrera chased several pitches up and out of the strike zone throughout the series.
“I can’t comment as to his health, but I saw him trying to adjust to the way we were pitching him,” said Red Sox catcher David Ross.” He expanded the strike zone and started swinging at balls off the dish.”
According to Red Sox pitcher Jake Peavy, the chase pitches were set up well.
“He was obviously hobbled, but It wasn’t like he was hurt and you could just do one thing,” said Peavy. “The game plan was to throw the ball away, but we also changed his eye levels. Throw the ball up, throw the ball down, show him something in to keep him from getting real comfortable away.”
Cabrera — who deserves a lot of credit for even being on the field — was never going to be comfortable playing with a torn groin. The Red Sox took full advantage thanks to a well-executed game plan and three clutch pitching performances by Tazawa.
Lovullo probably said it best.
“There were several times Cabrera came up with the game in the balance and we executed,” said Lovullo. “We kept him in check, and that was a huge difference in the series.”