Detroit • John Lackey figured there would be no margin for error.
So when Justin Verlander began overpowering the Boston lineup, Lackey did his best to match him, out for out.
“I knew I was going to have to pitch pretty good today,” Lackey said. “He’s having a great career, great season, great postseason. The guys came through.”
Lackey edged Verlander in the latest duel of these pitching-rich playoffs, and Boston’s bullpen shut down Detroit’s big boppers with the game on the line to lift the Red Sox over the Tigers 1-0 Tuesday for a 2-1 advantage in the American League championship series.
Mike Napoli homered off Verlander in the seventh inning, and Detroit’s best chance to rally fell short in the eighth when Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder struck out with runners at the corners.
“The runs are pretty stingy,” Tigers manager Jim Leyland said. “This is what it’s about in postseason, is good pitching.”
Despite three straight gems by their starters, the Tigers suddenly trail in a best-of-seven series they initially appeared to control. Game 4 is Wednesday night at Comerica Park, with Jake Peavy scheduled to start for the Red Sox against Doug Fister.
Peavy set the tone Tuesday during a pregame news conference, when he sounded miffed that so much of the attention was focused on Verlander before Game 3.
“It’s been funny for me to watch all the coverage of the game coming in,” Peavy said. “Almost like we didn’t have a starter going today. Our starter is pretty good, too.”
So the Tigers aren’t the only team in this ALCS with good starting pitching. That was evident after Lackey allowed four hits in 6 2-3 innings, striking out eight without a walk in a game that was delayed 17 minutes in the second inning because lights on the stadium towers went out.
It was the second 1-0 game in this matchup between the highest-scoring teams in the majors. Dominant pitching has been a running theme throughout these playoffs, which have included four 1-0 scores and seven shutouts.
The Red Sox are now two wins from an American League pennant after overcoming each of Detroit’s biggest stars. Max Scherzer started Game 2 for the Tigers and was terrific, but Boston rallied from a five-run deficit against the Detroit bullpen to even the series.
Then on Tuesday, Boston came away with a win in Detroit against Verlander, and when Cabrera and Fielder came up in the eighth, the Red Sox held on.
Cabrera, who failed to reach base for the first time in 32 postseason games for the Tigers, never looked comfortable against Junichi Tazawa, swinging and missing at the first two offerings and eventually chasing an outside pitch for strike three.
“To me, I (got) myself out. I was swinging at a lot of balls out of the strike zone,” said Cabrera, who has been banged up for a couple of months but homered in Game 2. “When you swing at balls, you’re not able to have success.”
Fielder looked even more overmatched against Koji Uehara, striking out on three pitches.
Uehara also worked the ninth for a save, ensuring that Lackey’s fine performance wouldn’t go to waste.
Lackey pitched poorly his first two seasons in Boston after signing an $82.5 million, five-year contract in December 2009. Then he missed all of 2012 following elbow ligament-replacement surgery.
He’s been better this season, and he kept the defending AL champions off balance Tuesday by effectively changing speeds.
Napoli’s first at-bat in the majors was against Verlander on May 4, 2006, at Comerica Park. He homered then, too.
“He’s tough. He was on his game tonight. He was keeping all of us off balance,” said Napoli, who rubbed his bat on teammate Jonny Gomes’ beard before going up to the plate. “I got to a 3-2 count and put a good swing on a pitch, was able to drive it.”
Detroit’s three starters in the ALCS — Verlander, Scherzer and Anibal Sanchez — have combined to allow two runs and six hits with 35 strikeouts in 21 innings. Still, the Tigers have fallen behind because their bullpen blew a four-run lead late in Game 2 and the offense came up empty at home on Tuesday.
Detroit stranded runners on first and third in the first, then wasted Jhonny Peralta’s leadoff double in the fifth. Peralta reached third with one out, but an overanxious Omar Infante struck out and Andy Dirks grounded out.
Napoli’s homer was the first run allowed by Verlander since Sept. 18 — he pitched six scoreless innings in each of his last two starts in the regular season before blanking the opposition for 21 innings in the playoffs.
“We won a game with four hits tonight. It says a lot about this team,” Gomes said.