BOSTON -- The Red Sox are back in the American League Championship Series for the first time in five years, and they're starting it up at home. The Tigers will go into Fenway Park as defending AL champions.
Consider, too, that these two charter members of the AL will be facing each other in the playoffs for the first time. In fact, they'd never even been in the same postseason -- a possibility since 1995, the first time the league played a full season under a three-division format -- until this year.
That's one delicious recipe for October baseball on the last stop to a pennant, and the drama begins with Game 1 on Saturday night at 8 p.m. ET on FOX.
"I happen to think, over the course of the season, the two best teams are playing in the ALCS," Oakland general manager Billy Beane said after his A's were eliminated by the Tigers on Thursday. "That's what I happen to believe. I think Detroit and Boston, in my mind, represent the two best teams. I think we were one of the best teams, but I think they represent the two best teams, and this is going to be a great matchup."
Boston has had a few days to ponder things after closing out Tampa Bay in four games in their AL Division Series.
The Tigers? Well, it took them an extra day to close out Oakland -- courtesy of eight shutout innings by Justin Verlander in Game 5 on Thursday night -- but they'll have a good night's sleep after arriving Friday morning and be ready to go Saturday in Beantown.
Tigers manager Jim Leyland has penciled in his starting rotation, and he'll lead off with right-hander Anibal Sanchez vs. the Red Sox, who will counter with Jon Lester.
Sanchez, who led the AL in ERA during the regular season with a 2.57 clip and went 15-8 with 202 strikeouts in 182 innings, did not fare as well in his lone postseason start this year, a Game 3 ALDS loss to the A's in Detroit.
Sanchez gave up a double to Coco Crisp to start that game and never looked comfortable after that. Sanchez ended up giving up six runs -- five earned -- on eight hits in 4 1/3 innings, including three home runs. He did, however, strike out six batters.
"He led the American League in earned run average," Leyland said Friday at Fenway. "He did not have a good playoff start. I feel very confident in him. I think he was probably a little rusty. … It took him a couple of innings to get going. I think he'll be back in the groove now. Like I said, he led this league in earned run average. That's pretty impressive."
Sanchez got his first taste of postseason baseball last year and said he didn't think it would be a problem to dial in the necessary intensity, especially for the lid-lifter on such a crucial series. Sanchez threw seven innings of shutout ball while earning the win in Game 2 of the ALCS last year against the Yankees.
"It's a big day for me, especially because I'm going to start the series," Sanchez said. "I need to keep working. I need to be focused tomorrow. [Throwing] my first pitch is something I look forward to every outing. I'll try to feel comfortable like I [did] all year long."
For the Red Sox, the choice of Lester is a no-brainer, especially after the way he pitched in Game 1 of Boston's ALDS win over the Rays -- and the way he's pitched since the middle of July.
Against Tampa Bay, Lester went 7 2/3 innings, a personal best in the postseason. He allowed three hits, including two solo home runs, but struck out seven for an easy win.
"Yeah, he's all business," Red Sox manager John Farrell said. "He works hard four days leading up to a fifth-day start. He's a very concrete thinker -- that's the one description I've used for him for a number of years. And that allows him to, I think, achieve a high level of concentration and maintain it for the time that he's on the mound. He's an intense competitor. … And that's the way he carries himself on the field."
Lester rebounded from a subpar 2012 to return to the position he's in now: playoff ace for a team close to a World Series.
"I think one word that sums it up for me is fun," Lester said. "I've had more fun this year than I ever had at the big league level. … And I think that's what's made this team pretty special is that from Day 1, when we ran out on that field, guys worked their butts off. … Guys were focused on these days right now that we're going through.
"And I think that's what makes our group pretty special. And it's just been a fun ride to this point."
On Saturday, Lester will try to lower his 2.54 postseason ERA while building on an October resume that includes 49 2/3 innings, a .199 opponents' batting average and 46 strikeouts, with 16 walks.
And if Lester can't do all of the damage against Detroit in Game 1, the powerful Red Sox offense might have a say in the proceedings.
"Our style -- our offense, our defense, our starting pitching and bullpen speaks for itself, so we've just got to continue to do that," Red Sox outfielder Jonny Gomes said. "This team can bang, and at the same time, these guys play the game right. You talk about taking the extra base. You're talking about leadoff walks -- not trying to hit a leadoff homer. Just passing the torch and picking each other up."
Tigers: Miggy regaining the magic?
Miguel Cabrera's two-run home run off Sonny Gray in Game 5 of the ALDS was not only a huge hit for Detroit -- which got the only runs it needed to win the game and series -- it was a great sign that the Tigers' most feared hitter might have his strength back. Cabrera, who has been struggling with groin problems, sent the ball to left field, indicating he may have regained the ability to pull the ball. That's a scary thought for Red Sox pitchers.
"I think we still see some of the strengths that he has, which are many," Farrell said. "But if you make a mistake on the other part of the plate, you're going to pay for it, much like [in Game 5 against Oakland]. You hope that you can find ways to, I don't want to say contain him, but maybe minimize the damage that the situations present themselves. But at the same time, there's two guys hitting behind him that are having a [heck] of a series themselves. That's where Victor Martinez has made this lineup that much more deep, especially the second half of the season."
• The Tigers finished first in the AL with a .283 batting average, 1,625 hits and a .346 on-base percentage, while they were second with 767 RBIs. The .283 average is the highest for Detroit since the club batted .287 in 2007.
• Tigers pitchers finished the season with 1,428 strikeouts to establish a new Major League record for most K's in a season. The previous record was 1,404, established by the 2003 Cubs. The Tigers led the league with 8.79 strikeouts per nine innings during the 2013 season, which marked the highest rate at which Tigers pitchers have struck out batters in club history.
Red Sox: Papi power
Red Sox designated hitter David Ortiz recorded his 50th career postseason RBI in Game 3 of the ALDS against Tampa Bay to become the sixth player in postseason history to reach the half-century mark. Ortiz's career postseason average of an RBI every 5.1 at-bats is the best mark among the six players with at least 50 RBIs.
In addition, Ortiz has appeared in all 61 Red Sox postseason games beginning in 2003, second most in team history to Jason Varitek's 63. Ortiz is the club's all-time leader in postseason runs (43), hits (66), doubles (16), home runs (14), RBIs (46), walks (46) and extra-base hits (32).
• The Sox lead the postseason with six stolen bases. With a swipe in each of the four games of the ALDS, Jacoby Ellsbury became the first Boston player to steal bases in the team's first four postseason games. He was tied at three with Johnny Damon, who did it for the Red Sox in 2004, before swiping a base in Game 4.
• Sanchez is the seventh pitcher in Tigers history to capture the ERA crown, and the first since Verlander did so with a 2.40 ERA in 2011.
• Shortstop Stephen Drew has hit safely in all but four of 16 career postseason games, batting .277 (18-for-65) with two homers and seven RBIs. Stephen and his brother, J.D., a former Red Sox outfielder, are the second pair of brothers who've both played in the postseason for Boston, joining pitchers Pedro and Ramon Martinez.