DETROIT — Once again this October, one run was enough.
The Boston Red Sox scored it — and now they lead an AL championship series that seemed to be slipping away last weekend.
John Lackey edged Justin 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 ALCS.
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.
“This game had the feel it was going to be won or lost on one pitch,” Boston reliever Craig Breslow said. “Lackey kept us in the game. Every inning where he was able to throw up a zero gave us a lift.”
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.”
Lackey backed that up and then some.
He 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.
“I think that little time off gave him a chance to slow down a little bit. He was excited and pumped that first inning,” Boston catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia said. “Kind of getting excited with his slider, throwing a little too hard and leaving it over the middle, but he was still pretty effective.”
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 in the first 26 games.
“The runs are pretty stingy,” Tigers manager Jim Leyland said. “This is what it’s about in postseason, is good pitching.”
After rallying from a five-run deficit to even the series in Game 2, Boston came away with a win in Detroit against one of the game’s best pitchers. The Tigers had a chance for their own comeback in the eighth when Austin Jackson drew a one-out walk and Torii Hunter followed with a single.
But 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.
“He just never gave in,” Saltalamacchia said.
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.”
In the last two games, the Tigers have started Verlander and 21-game winner Max Scherzer — and the Red Sox won both.
Throw in Anibal Sanchez’s outstanding effort in the opener, when the Red Sox managed only a ninth-inning single in a 1-0 loss, and Detroit’s three starters in the ALCS 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.
Verlander needed every bit of focus after Jacoby Ellsbury’s one-out single in the sixth. The Tigers have not held runners well this year, but a number of pickoff throws helped prevent a steal. At one point, Verlander appeared to be pointing at his wrist, as if to ask the dugout if his delivery to the plate was quick enough.
Amid all that, Verlander got Shane Victorino on a flyout, and after Ellsbury moved to second anyway on a wild pitch, Dustin Pedroia grounded out to end the threat.
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.
Lackey was pulled with one on in the seventh. Breslow came on and walked Alex Avila, but Infante’s groundout ended the inning.
The Red Sox appeared to be in deep trouble when Detroit led 5-0 in Game 2 at Fenway Park, but David Ortiz tied it with an eighth-inning grand slam off closer Joaquin Benoit, and Boston won it in the ninth.
Verlander looked ready to halt any notion of momentum for the Red Sox. He struck out six straight in the second and third, matching a single-game postseason record.
Lackey did his best to keep pace, retiring 10 in a row before Peralta’s double.
The Tigers had taken no-hitters into at least the sixth inning of the previous three games. Verlander fell an out short of extending that streak when Gomes hit a roller up the middle for an infield single in the fifth.
“We won a game with four hits tonight. It says a lot about this team,” Gomes said.
NOTES: Detroit reliever Phil Coke struck out seven straight over multiple outings during last year’s World Series against San Francisco, according to STATS. ... DTE Energy said the lighting outage was because of a cable failure in the area near the stadium. ... The last time there were four 1-0 games in one postseason was 1991, according to STATS. There were three in the NLCS and another when Minnesota beat Atlanta in Game 7 of the World Series.