"At this time of the year, you can tell every game you're playing is a little more [intense]. It's almost like the playoffs have started," catcher Alex Avila said after the Tigers' 3-0 victory.
For the only teams in baseball averaging five runs a game, it was a Labor Day chore to get a run across, stranding five runners in scoring position over the first four innings. By the time the Red Sox put up a seventh-inning rally on Doug Fister, they were willing to send up Jarrod Saltalamacchia -- 5-for-10 lifetime against Detroit's lanky sinkerballer -- to lay down a sacrifice bunt with runners on first and second. They'd seen ex-teammate Jose Iglesias turn enough double plays already.
"That kid, he's got great hands and moves all over the diamond," Fister said. "It's such a blessing to have him. The things he brings to this team, it's astounding."
Avila smelled out the bunt from behind home plate and threw out the lead runner at third. Instead of runners at second and third and one out, the Red Sox still had them at first and second for the bottom two hitters in the order, whom Fister retired on groundouts to finish of his seven scoreless innings of four-hit ball.
The Tigers, with Triple Crown candidate Miguel Cabrera out for a third game with abdominal issues, took their risks, too. In the same inning as Saltalamacchia's sacrifice, they were willing to send Victor Martinez -- surgically repaired knees and all -- on a hit-and-run play with Andy Dirks up, and it very nearly backfired. As Martinez stood near second base, waiting to see if Jacoby Ellsbury might run down Dirks' liner to the 420-foot mark in right-center field, Dirks had to wait and see if Martinez would be able to round third.
"We were kind of stagnant there. We weren't doing much offensively," manager Jim Leyland said. "With Victor, you didn't figure they expected him to run, so we just put him in motion and fortunately Dirks came through and did the job."
Once the ball fell just out of Ellsbury's reach, Martinez made a mad dash home, not only beating the throw to the plate, but leaving enough time for Dirks to land on third. Dirks scored on the next play.
The quiet reaction from much of a sellout crowd of 36,188 sounded like a four-run lead rather than two. Austin Jackson singled and scored in the eighth on Prince Fielder's line-drive sacrifice fly to right field for a three-run cushion.
A day after the Tigers were shut out on 11 hits by Cleveland at Comerica Park in a game decided on a ninth-inning grand slam, they went 0-for-8 with a runner in scoring position over the first four innings against John Lackey. Still, they survived.
"They had some chances. I'm sure they're kicking themselves," Leyland said. "And we had some chances, and we were kicking ourselves early in the game. And finally we broke loose."
Fister (12-7) walked three of the first six batters he faced and hit another, but induced ground-ball double plays in the first and second innings. Another double play thanks to an acrobatic turn from Iglesias erased a leadoff single in the sixth.
Iglesias whirled to tag Shane Victorino on his way by, then threw against his momentum to first base with enough on the toss to beat Dustin Pedroia busting down the line.
"I knew I had time at first, so I tried to tag him," Iglesias said.
For him, it was no big deal. For his teammates and manager, it was another piece of mastery.
"He's made about three already that I've never seen before," Leyland said.
The bullpen, despite closer Joaquin Benoit having the day off, carried it with similar flair at the end. Bruce Rondon overpowered David Ortiz, topping out with a 103-mph fastball on the Fenway Park radar gun before fanning him on a 102-mph heater with a runner on to end the eighth. Jose Veras worked the ninth for his second save as a Tiger and his 21st on the year.
With that, the Tigers had their first shutout at Fenway in four years, and just their second since 1987. Perhaps bigger than that, it draws Detroit within a half-game of Boston for the best record in the AL.
It's too early to think about playoff seeding, the club insists. It's clearly not too early for playoff style baseball. Consider this a rehearsal.
"You know they're in a race as well," Jackson said. "The battle for the top spots, it's going to be a tough matchup each and every time."