Interleague Play Begins as Red Sox Head to Philly

PHOENIX - APRIL 24: Chase Utley #26 of the Philadelphia Phillies warms up on deck during the Major League Baseball game against the Arizona Diamondbacks at Chase Field on April 24, 2010 in Phoenix, Arizona. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

The Red Sox are on a roll, suddenly, with 3 good wins against 2 good teams. One of the biggest reasons? The resurgence of one David Ortiz, whose 2-run shot on Wednesday was the difference in a 1-run game. If he keeps it up, the Red Sox should have a good shot at winning this series against--

Oh, no, wait, it's interleague play.

Yes, it's that time of year again, when AL lineups get screwed up, AL pitchers throw out their backs trying to swing the bat, and the Red Sox manage to squeeze in 6 more games out west. Oh boy!

Normally, interleague play is the time for the good American League teams to take advantage of some weak competition. The NL hasn't had a winning record since 2003, and the disparity has become really very noticeable of late. Too bad for the Sox they've drawn the relatively strong AL West, along with a home-and-home against last year's National League Champion Philadelphia Phillies. Oh boy again!

So, are the Phillies still "that good?" The short answer is "yes." The slightly longer answer is "Oh, God, why?"

The Phillies combine, as we have been seeing lately, a top-of-the-line offense with a pitching staff that, though hurt by homers (tiny as their park is), maintains a top-5 xFIP. Lead by old friend Roy Halladay--who, yes, the Red Sox will get to face--the Phillies have as strong a staff as just about anyone, and their lineup manages to produce a .349 wOBA even without a DH.

This lineup starts, unusually, at second base. One of the league's perennial MVP candidates, Chase Utley has a bat that would be more than acceptable at DH, and does it while flashing one of the best gloves at 2nd. Generally speaking, the strategy with Utley should be simple: keep the ball away from him, because he'll kill you if you give him one to hit, or one to catch.

Utley's contributions are backed up by a lineup of all-stars. Home-run hitting Ryan Howard stands at first, an incredibly dangerous player even if he's overpaid now. Jayson Werth is an outstanding outfielder, and might be best compared to our own J.D. Drew these last few years. And Carlos Ruiz is off to a very hot start, though it's largely BABIP fueled and makes no sense given his career numbers. Finally, there's Jimmy Rollins, who has some big numbers despite being on the DL for most of the last month. There's not many spots to rest against this Phillies lineup, other than the 9-hole.

Every Red Sox fan knows how dominant Roy Halladay can be. Very, very dominant. And now the NL is learning too, as Roy's ridiculous 1.64 ERA is like something out of the dead ball era. If Halladay weren't enough, the Red Sox will also have to face Cole Hamels. The lefty hasn't exactly repeated on his success from '08 these last couple of years, but taking him lightly would be a mistake, as his ERA belies another solid xFIP of 3.74, as Hamels has been largely hurt by bad HR/FB% numbers. Of course, hoping that gets better against this power-hitting Red Sox team might be a stretch. The Red Sox might get something of a reprieve in the middle of the series against struggling youngster Kyle Kendrick on Saturday, but they shouldn't necessarily count on it. After a horrible April, Kendrick has had a fantastic May, allowing only 6 earned runs in 21 innings.

The Sox will want to chase these starters as early as possible to get to the softer underside of the Phillies bullpen. To this point in the season, the greatest skill the Philadelphia pen has shown is luck, with an underwhelming Chad Durbin having carried more of the load than he is likely able. Otherwise, the middle innings are taken up by a generally ineffectual group, with the dominant Jose Contreras providing a truly bright spot at the back end of the pen. With Brad Lidge struggling through injuries, it will likely be Contreras closing the door on the Sox should he get the opportunity--something we shouldn't expect him to mess up with any regularity.

There are lots of questions for the Red Sox this series. What does Terry Francona do with the hot David Ortiz? Can the back end of the rotation finally carry their weight? And, with the Sox on a 3-game winning streak and expecting Jacoby Ellsbury back on Saturday, is it finally time to turn this season around? We'll see starting tonight, as John Lackey takes on Cole Hamels.

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