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Only one team will survive this classic ALCS

After four one-run games in the ALCS, John Farrell (with GM Ben Cherington in the background) enjoys a laugh Friday.
After four one-run games in the ALCS, John Farrell (with GM Ben Cherington in the background) enjoys a laugh Friday.Credit: bill greene/globe staff

The Red Sox and the Detroit Tigers are collaborating on a masterpiece in the American League Championship Series. The question, as the series shifts back to Fenway Park with the Sox holding a three-games-to-two lead, is who gets the signature baseball brushstroke on this work of art?

One of these teams will hang the picture of a postseason classic on its wall as it heads to the World Series. The other will hang its head in dismay. Either the Red Sox or the Tigers are going to lose the ALCS. But the truth is this is such an entertaining, enthralling, engaging, engrossing series that those witnessing it are winners.

This series already deserves a place among the top 10 postseason encounters in Red Sox history. It has been an instant-classic of an ALCS that has had everything, well, except a Prince Fielder run batted in.

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“Yeah, it’s been an unbelievable series,” said Red Sox first baseman Mike Napoli, the clubhouse leader for ALCS MVP. “I remember talking to one of the umpires and being like, ‘What’s going to happen next?’ Lights are going out. We got comebacks. Guys are making key pitches. Some guys are coming up with key hits. It’s just been a great series all around. It’s not over yet. We still got some business to take care of.”

This sublime series could have a winner declared Saturday, if the Sox can down Detroit and presumptive Cy Young Award winner Max Scherzer to cap an improbable transformation and return to the World Series for the first time since 2007.

It almost feels like such a pulse-pounding, palm-sweating series tug-of-war is mandated to go the distance for its denouement.

The series has already tied the ALCS record for one-run games with four, set by Cleveland and Baltimore back in 1997.

Bet on it being broken.

Truthfully, both teams have to like their chances. The Sox are riding the momentum of taking two of three in Detroit. They lead the best-of-seven series despite having been outscored, 16-14, and outhit, 42-34, having struck out 61 times, and having David Ortiz and Shane Victorino go a combined 4 for 40.

Yet, thanks to timely hitting (see: Ortiz’s tying grand slam in Game 2), the heroics of Napoli, and a bullpen that has allowed one run in 17 innings in the ALCS, the Sox are a victory away from the Fall Classic.

The stars and the beards appear to be aligned for the Sox this season. Every one of their wins in the series has been by one run, including holding on for a 4-3 victory in Game 5 Thursday night at Comerica Park.

But Detroit has to feel good too. They’ve outplayed the Sox in the nip-and-tuck tilt. They have their two aces lined up for the Fens.

If the Sox don’t beat Scherzer, who fanned 13 and allowed just two hits and a run in Game 2, on Saturday in Game 6, then the Tigers send Justin Verlander to the hill for Game 7. Red Sox fans want to see Verlander take the mound at Fenway about as much as they want to see the snowblower come out of their garage for the winter.

It was Verlander who best summed up the series after he lost, 1-0, in Game 3.

“If you can’t appreciate this, you can’t appreciate baseball,” he said.

Even the players can appreciate how special this series is as they’re grinding through it.

“It’s one of the best I’ve been a part of,” said Napoli. “I was a part of a pretty good World Series, but this is definitely up there.”

Napoli was part of the 2011 World Series between the Texas Rangers and the St. Louis Cardinals. The Rangers were twice one strike away from winning it all in Game 6, but lost the game and the series.

It’s always hard to put into perspective an event in real time. In our instant information, instant gratification culture there is the urge to call whatever is taking place at the moment unprecedented and unparalleled.

This is not the best postseason series the Red Sox have ever played. To say so would be heresy and lunacy.

The 1975 World Series had five one-run games and two extra-innings games, including the incomparable Game 6, best known for Carlton Fisk’s iconic home run.

The Red Sox’ historic comeback from 3-0 down in the 2004 ALCS was less a baseball victory and more an exorcism for an entire fanbase.

The 2003 postseason featured a ton of drama. The Sox won a thrilling Division Series against the Oakland A’s. They staved off elimination in Game 3 with Trot Nixon’s walkoff two-run homer in the 11th. The series ended with Derek Lowe striking out Terrence Long with the bases loaded in the bottom of the ninth to preserve a 4-3 win.

We all know how the 2003 ALCS concluded. For the same reason we’re not delving into a certain slow roller to first base in the 1986 World Series, but we will mention the 1986 ALCS and Dave “Hendu” Henderson.

The greatest series the Sox ever played may have been the 1912 World Series against the New York Giants, which the Sox won in eight games.

Yes, eight. Game 2 at Fenway ended in a 6-6 tie due to darkness.

The Sox won a series that featured four one-run games, including Game 8, when they rallied for two runs in the bottom of the 10th against Giants Hall of Famer Christy Mathewson to win, 3-2.

So, this ALCS isn’t the first ongoing October drama the Red Sox have been involved in. But one way or the other, Saturday promises to be another memorable chapter in a series to savor.

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