ALCS - Detroit Tigers v Boston Red Sox - Game Two

Tigers lose the momentum, but still have an edge

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It’s not going to be the joyous plane ride home the Tigers were looking forward to, but achieving a split in Fenway, with Justin Verlander about to pitch in Game 3, is a great place for Jim Leyland’s team to be with up to five games remaining in the ALCS.

There’s something to be said for the way the Tigers lost on Sunday night. Up 5-1 in the eighth, victory seems all but assured. That was particularly true in light of the fact that the Red Sox had struck out 30 times and scored once in 16 innings up that point.

But, as the Red Sox showed tonight, momentum counts for so little in baseball it might as well not exist at all. They went from left for dead to Gatorade bathings in the blink of an eye. The Tigers are practiced at coming off tough defeats. They just came from 2-1 down to beat the A’s in the ALDS. Last month, they lost 20-4 to the Red Sox, then came out and drubbed the Royals 16-2 in their next game,  The last four times they were shut out in the regular season (not including that Henderson Alvarez no-hitter in game No. 162),  they won their next game).

Sure, the Red Sox are feeling much better about themselves after David Ortiz’s grand slam. They know the Tigers bullpen is vulnerable. But they knew that going in. They were the favorites two days ago, and they could still be considered the favorites now.

The Tigers’ starting pitching, though, is completely unblemished, and Verlander is coming off two dominant performances against the A’s. To win this series, the Red Sox still need at least two more wins in games started by Verlander, Sanchez and Scherzer, and it’s not like they’re any sort of cinch to win Game 4 with Doug Fister on the mound.

What the Tigers do need is some sort of threat from the top of their lineup. Austin Jackson and Torii Hunter are both 1-for-10 after two games, and Hunter, in particular, has looked awful at the plate. Because of their struggles, neither Miguel Cabrera nor Prince Fielder ever got to hit with a man on base in Game 2. As much as the Red Sox’s offensive impotence was the story for most of Saturday and Sunday, both teams now have scored in exactly three of the 18 innings played.

Game 3 should be fascinating. John Lackey has been rock solid for the Red Sox, but he’s probably going to give up two or three runs, at least. If the Tigers are up 3-1 after seven, will Jim Leyland push Verlander in response to what happened tonight? Verlander is better equipped to go the distance than Sanchez or Scherzer, but he hasn’t completed a game this year and, if nothing else, the Red Sox will probably drive up his pitch count. How the Tigers handle a Game 3 save opportunity could well swing the rest of the series.

Video: Nelson Cruz hits second-longest home run of 2016

ANAHEIM, CA - SEPTEMBER 14:  Nelson Cruz #23 of the Seattle Mariners celebrates his solo homerun with Daniel Vogelbach #20 of the Seattle Mariners to take a 2-1 lead over the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim during the seventh inning at Angel Stadium of Anaheim on September 14, 2016 in Anaheim, California.  (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
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There’s certainly never a bad time to hit a home run, but when you get the opportunity to crush a triple-deck, 493-foot shot off of Tyler Duffey, you should take it. With the Mariners down 2-0 to the Twins in the fourth inning, Cruz hammered a fastball to deep left field for his 39th long ball of the season — and the second-longest home run hit in 2016, to boot.

It doesn’t hurt that the Mariners are 1.5 games back of a playoff spot, although they’ll have to oust the Blue Jays, Orioles, or Tigers to get a wild card. They’ve gone 3-3 in the last week, dropping two consecutive series to the Astros and Blue Jays and taking their series opener against Minnesota 10-1 on Friday night.

Cruz, for his part, entered Saturday’s game with a .299/.337/.610 batting line and six home runs in September. According to ESPN.com’s Home Run Tracker, Cruz sits behind Edwin Encarnacion and Mike Napoli with 13 “no-doubt” home runs in 2016, third-most among major league sluggers. It’s safe to say he can add Saturday’s moonshot to that list.

Marlins’ outfielder and undisputed home run king Giancarlo Stanton remains untouched at the top of the Statcast leaderboard with a 504-ft. home run, and it’s difficult to envision any slugger reaching beyond that before the end of the season. Even so, Cruz won’t need to clear 500 feet to extend an impressive hitting record. One more home run will put the 36-year-old at 40 on the year, making 2016 his third consecutive season with at least 40 homers, and his second such season doing so in Seattle.

Report: John Farrell won’t rule out a postseason return for Pablo Sandoval

BOSTON, MASSACHUSETTS - APRIL 11:  Pablo Sandoval #48 of the Boston Red Sox looks on from the dugout before the Red Sox home opener against the Baltimore Orioles at Fenway Park on April 11, 2016 in Boston, Massachusetts. The Orioles defeat the Red Sox 9-7.  (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)
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It’s been a strange season for Red Sox’ third baseman Pablo Sandoval, who lost his starting role in spring training, went 0-for-6 in three regular season appearances, and underwent season-ending surgery to repair a torn labrum in his left shoulder in May. That was the last the Red Sox were supposed to hear about Sandoval until spring 2017, when he was expected to rejoin the team after a lengthy rehab stint in Florida.

On Saturday, manager John Farrell was telling a different story. Per MLB.com’s Sam Blum, Farrell hinted that Sandoval could return to the team as soon as October, albeit in a very limited capacity.

At the time of the surgery, it was all looking at the start of next Spring Training,” Farrell said. “We’re not getting too far ahead of ourselves here, but at the same time, we compliment him for the work he’s put in, the way he’s responded to the rehab, the way he’s worked himself into better condition. We’re staying open-minded.

If the 30-year-old does return in 2016, don’t expect him to look like the three-home run hitter of the 2012 World Series. Should the Red Sox lose another player to injury, Sandoval might be called on as a backup option, but he’s unlikely to see substantial playing time under any other circumstances. Despite making two appearances at DH in the instructional league, Sandoval has not started at third base since undergoing surgery, though Farrell noted that a return to third base would be the next logical step in his recovery process.

Sandoval has yet to hit his stride within the Red Sox’ organization after hitting career-worst numbers in 2015. According to FanGraphs, his Offensive Runs Above Average (Off) plummeted to -20.2, contributing approximately two wins fewer than the average offensive player in 2015. (The Diamondbacks’ Chris Owings held the lowest Off mark in 2015, with -26.3 runs below average.) Sandoval has not appeared in a postseason race since the Giants’ championship run in 2014.

Heading into Saturday evening, the Red Sox could clinch their spot in the postseason with a win over the Rays and an Orioles’ loss.