Red Sox's brutal stretch gets tougher

Red Sox's brutal stretch gets tougher

NEW YORK -- The Red Sox have just finished a three-city, nine-game road trip, concluding with four hard-fought losses to the rival Yankees. If a team ever needed a respite, it was the Red Sox.

But such breaks don't always exist for teams fighting for a playoff spot. They may want a long homestand against basement dwellers, but the Red Sox will play the Tigers -- leaders of the American League Central -- four times before heading on the road again.

"That's part of baseball," Red Sox starting pitcher Jon Lester said of the stretch. "That's part of our schedule. That's part of us being the Red Sox. We've got to play tough games going down the stretch, trying to fight for a playoff spot. I think that's what makes it enjoyable for the fans and makes us just come and want to play every day."

Even if they aren't competing for the same spot, two playoff-quality teams playing in mid-August usually yield a charged atmosphere.

"It's a team that definitely has a home-field advantage in Fenway Park with the Fenway faithful," Tigers reliever Bobby Seay said. "To play in there's fun. A lot of the new guys that are here haven't played there yet. They're going to get a good taste of Major League Baseball on the road. To me, it's one of the best places to go on the road, to feel the adversity and turn it up a notch."

Edwin Jackson, who will start Monday's opener for Detroit, pitched 2 1/3 scoreless innings for the Rays during the 2008 American League Championship Series against Boston.

"There's memories as far as it being the playoffs," Jackson said Sunday in Detroit. "But as far as Boston, we played Boston so many times. It's nothing new to pitch against Boston. You go in there, you know how the game's going to be. You have to be aggressive."

Detroit enters the series with some momentum, having won four of five games, including Sunday's come-from-behind, 8-7 win over Minnesota. Boston comes off a heartbreaking 5-2 loss at Yankee Stadium, the club's sixth straight defeat.

Each team will start a Cy Young Award candidate during the series. Detroit's Justin Verlander and Boston's Josh Beckett will pitch, but not against other. Beckett, who threw seven scoreless frames in Friday's 2-0 loss to the Yankees in 15 innings, will start on Wednesday against Armando Galarraga. Verlander, who struggled in an uncharacteristically poor outing on Saturday, goes in Thursday's matinee, probably against Clay Buchholz.

"They pitch ahead in the count," Boston's Victor Martinez said of Verlander and Jackson. "When they bring their best stuff, it's when they throw strikes."

Tuesday's matchup features a pair of young right-handers. Detroit's Rick Porcello, a 20-year-old rookie, will face 23-year-old Junichi Tazawa, who is making first Major League start.

Can the Detroit staff, ranked fifth in the AL with a 4.19 ERA, keep Boston's hitters in check? Despite the patience of hitters like Martinez and Kevin Youkilis, the Red Sox went 31 innings without a run in their series against the Yankees.

When the teams met in Detroit in early June, the Red Sox swept a three-game series. But several players from that encounter won't be around for this week's series. Two of Boston's three starters in that set are on the disabled list. A right shoulder injury has sidelined Daisuke Matsuzaka, and Tim Wakefield has been battling calf and back problems.

Dontrelle Willis, one of three Detroit starters to take a loss in the series, is on the DL himself with an anxiety disorder. In his outing against the Red Sox , Willis couldn't hold a three-run lead and unraveled in the third inning. He hit one batter, walked four more -- forcing in two runs -- and was ultimately charged with five runs. Two starts later, Willis was on the DL for the second time this season.

"There's so many guys, especially veteran guys, that know how to work the pitcher," Tigers catcher Gerald Laird said. "They've got guys that are pitch killers -- foul balls off, stay alive. They've got a lot of veteran guys that know what they're doing. You have to stay focused with each matchup."

Detroit's lineup, which ranks 10th in the AL in runs scored, isn't as patient. But navigating it successfully will require dealing with Miguel Cabrera, owner of 22 home runs, a .330 batting average and a .394 on-base percentage.

"He has a lot of power," said Martinez, who is familiar with Cabrera from his stay in the AL Central with the Indians. "You don't have much room to make a mistake."

The Red Sox have lost a season series with the Tigers only once since 2001, though the teams did split six games in 2006. This series is the last time the teams will meet in the regular season in 2009.

Neither team comes into the series perfectly healthy, but few clubs can say they are in August. Detroit's Carlos Guillen has gingerly returned from a shoulder injury. Guillen, normally a switch-hitter, has hit only from the left side and has also served only as a designated hitter since his return from the DL. Tigers manager Jim Leyland did say on Sunday that Guillen could play left field at some point in Boston.

Since the start of their road trip, the Red Sox's roster changed almost daily due to trades, injuries and efforts to maintain a fresh bullpen.

"I think it's been out of necessity," Red Sox manager Terry Francona said. "As we get to the Trade Deadline, there's always some uncertainty. Then the Trade Deadline comes and goes, and we added a bunch of new players. We're trying to become a team. That doesn't happen overnight."

Thomas Boorstein is a reporter for This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.