DETROIT — 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 lead in the AL 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.
Despite three straight gems by their starters, the Tigers suddenly trail in a best-of-seven series they seemed to have complete control of only two days ago. Game 4 is Wednesday night at Comerica Park, with Jake Peavy scheduled to start for the Red Sox against Doug Fister.
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. That’s been the theme throughout these playoffs, which have included four 1-0 scores and seven shutouts in the first 26 games.
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.
Fielder was even more overmatched against Koji Uehara, striking out on three pitches.
Uehara also pitched 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 Tigers off balance Tuesday by effectively changing speeds.
Napoli’s first at-bat in the majors was against Verlander on May 4, 2006, at Detroit’s Comerica Park. He homered then, too.
This hit was far more important. 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.
That streak ended with one swing by Napoli.
Lackey was pulled with one on in the seventh. Craig 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, but David Ortiz tied it with an eighth-inning grand slam off closer Joaquin Benoit, and the Red Sox 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 Jonny Gomes hit a roller up the middle for an infield single in the fifth.
NOTES: Detroit reliever Phil Coke struck out seven straight over multiple outings during last year’s World Series against San Francisco, according to STATS.