DETROIT — John Lackey said his arm has never felt stronger.
But his command?
Lackey takes the mound Tuesday for the Boston Red Sox in Game 3 of the American League Championship Series. His counterpart is the esteemed Justin Verlander.
“He’s kind of our lineup’s problem,” Lackey said. “I’ve got my own problems with their lineup.”
Indeed, the Tigers look like they can erupt at any time. Miguel Cabrera is showing signs he is getting healthier. He blasted a home run Sunday and sent another ball to the triangle at Fenway Park.
“He’s not going to be 100 percent,” Detroit Manager Jim Leyland said of Cabrera’s groin injury. “But I think he’s better.”
Cabrera, Prince Fielder, Victor Martinez, Jhonny Peralta â€¦ the Tigers’ lineup can pounce as easily as Boston’s did Sunday night, when it scored four runs in the eighth inning and another in the ninth.
“One through nine, you’ve got to make pitches,” Lackey said.
Lackey has made two starts against the Tigers this year, allowing two runs over seven innings in one start and three runs in 71/3 innings in the other.
Lackey’s first playoff start for the Red Sox was rough. He gave up seven hits and four runs over 51/3 innings against Tampa Bay.
“I think the time off kind of got to me a little bit, as far as the touch and feel of my pitches,” Lackey said of his 10-day rest before the Tampa Bay start.
VERLANDER FACED Boston once this year, allowing seven hits and four runs over five innings on June 23.
But Verlander has looked much better since then. He is ready for the Red Sox.
“Most of the veteran lineups in baseball are guys that have professional at-bats,” Verlander said. “They tend to extend pitch counts and do all the little things that can to get the starting pitcher out of the game.
“I think the only way to combat that is be aggressive — throw a lot of strikes and pound the zone.”
SHANE VICTORINO is one of the batters Verlander will be aggressive against. He just can’t come too far inside on Victorino, who has been hit five times in the postseason after 18 HBPs during the regular season.
Verlander said Victorino crowds the plate too much.
“I’ve seen some pitches that he got hit on that were strikes,” Verlander said. “Whoever is the home plate umpire needs to be aware that he’s up there.”
THE STRATEGY OF driving up Verlander’s pitch count is obvious. The Red Sox would like to see him leave the game, and then face Detroit’s inconsistent bullpen.
Tigers relievers have been a question mark all season. They pitched well in Saturday’s win, but gave up five runs in one-plus inning Sunday.
“One night the bullpen was meticulous and the next night it wasn’t quite so good,” Detroit Manager Jim Leyland said.
THE RED SOX lineup will feature the return of Mike Napoli to first base. He did not start Sunday, then struck out as a pinch hitter. Napoli is 2 for 17 in the postseason.
“I feel fine,” Napoli said, noting that every postseason at-bat is magnified. “The spotlight is on every single thing you do.
“I feel good at the plate. Feel like I’m just missing some pitches.”
Farrell has not yet announced his left fielder. Switch-hitter Daniel Nava, who starts against most right-handers, is 1 for 3 against Verlander, while right-handed hitter Jonny Gomes is 0 for 9.
“The one thing that can’t be measured are the intangibles that Jonny Gomes brings,” Farrell said.
DETROIT’S LINEUP will be similar to Sunday’s. Jhonny Peralta will play shortstop, with Jose Iglesias on the bench.
Leyland said he might go with Andy Dirks in left field.
WHEN TORII HUNTER flipped over the bullpen wall trying to catch David Ortiz’s grand slam Sunday, he was soon surrounded by Red Sox relievers.
“All those guys came over to check on me. I want to thank them for that,” Hunter said.
You could hear Ryan Dempster saying, â€˜are you all right. That was a great effort.'”
Dempster said, “I appreciate anyone going after a ball like that, and I wanted to tell him.”
Kevin Thomas can be reached at 791-6411 or: [email protected]Twitter: ClearTheBases