(Reuters) - There is a first for everything, even for charter members of the American League going back more than a century, as the Boston Red Sox and Detroit Tigers can attest.
Rivals for 112 years, Boston and Detroit will clash in the postseason for the first time when the best-of-seven American League Championship Series starts Saturday in Beantown.
Boston has won seven World Series and Detroit owns four Fall Classic titles, and the survivor of this battle between veteran-laden teams gets a chance to add on against the winner of the National League series between the Dodgers and Cardinals.
With marquee players such as David Ortiz and Dustin Pedroia in the Red Sox lineup, and Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder in the middle of the Tigers’ complement, the formidable pitching staffs of both clubs should be challenged.
The Tigers, who last won the ultimate prize in 1984 have reached the ALCS for the third year in a row and still feel the sting of a four-game sweep by the San Francisco Giants in last year’s tilt for MLB’s championship.
“That’s the motivation that we’ve had all year,” said Tigers starter Justin Verlander, who took a no-hitter into the seventh inning of Thursday’s 3-0 Division Series clincher against the Oakland Athletics.
“(For) Everybody here who had a taste of that last year and how much it hurts, it’s that extra driving factor.”
The Red Sox, meanwhile, have flourished after a makeover that altered team chemistry and propelled them from a last-place 69-93 finish in 2012 to top seed status with the American League’s best record at 97-65.
Newcomers Shane Victorino, Mike Napoli and Jonny Gomes have helped the club gel and establish an esprit de corps that had been lacking in the clubhouse for a team that won the titles in 2004 and 2007.
The heavily bearded Boston team has a deep and versatile roster, just as capable of striking with the stolen base as with the home run as normally associated with Red Sox attacks.
On paper, the clubs are virtually dead even at the plate.
Detroit led the league in batting average and the Red Sox were second. Boston topped the circuit in runs scored and the Tigers were runners-up. The Red Sox bashed 178 home runs, while Detroit slugged 176.
One big edge in Boston’s favor is on the basepaths where the Red Sox are sparked by the aggressive running of lead-off man Jacoby Ellsbury.
Boston stole 123 bases with a remarkable success rate, having been caught stealing just 19 times. Detroit ranked dead last with 35 steals and were caught 20 times.
Starting pitching might favor the Tigers, but the bullpen edge belongs to the Red Sox.
Detroit’s leading trio of Max Scherzer (21-3), AL ERA leader Anibal Sanchez (2.57) and Verlander is arguably the best in baseball.
The Red Sox rotation of Jon Lester, John Lackey, Clay Buchholz and Jake Peavy is strong but not as scary.
Verlander, a former Cy Young and MVP winner, struggled during the season in going 13-12 but has put it all together in the postseason, not allowing a run in 15 innings, giving up six hits and two walks while striking out 21.
“I’m pitching the way I’m supposed to,” he said. “I worked my butt off all year to try to get consistent and get myself where I needed to be.”
This season, Tigers starters posted the best ERA in the league at 3.61, with Red Sox starters not far back at 3.79.
Boston has been swinging the bats better than Detroit of late, with slugger Cabrera at less than top form as he deals with injuries, notwithstanding his two-run homer that fueled the Tigers’ Game Five win in Oakland.
Tight games would put the focus on the bullpens, and that could play in Boston’s favor.
Detroit struggled to find the right combination for late inning relief before settling on Joaquin Benoit as closer, and Boston also had to juggle relievers after a spate of injuries.
Emerging as a formidable force at the end of games were Japanese closer Koji Uehara, compatriot Junichi Tazawa and efficient left-hander Craig Breslow.
Uehara saved 21 games after being given the job, pitching to a 1.09 ERA, while issuing a paltry 0.57 walks per nine innings.
Reporting by Larry Fine in New York; Editing by Frank Pingue