ARLINGTON, TX: Josh Reddick #16 of the Oakland Athletics hits a home run in the first inning against the Texas Rangers at Rangers Ballpark in Arlington in Arlington, Texas. (Photo by Rick Yeatts/Getty Images)(Photo by Rick Yeatts/Getty Images)
The Red Sox stand alone in third place, just half-a-game out of a playoff spot, and this three-game set with Oakland is all that separates them from the bulldozer that has been the Yankees as of late. It's a series they need to win, and at a time when the Wild Card-leading Angels are facing the Indians (just 1-1/2 back of the Red Sox) while the Rays (one game behind) are taking on the Bombers.
The Athletics are under .500, in third place in the American League West, but the Red Sox still aren't at full strength. On the other hand, this is possibly the last series for a while that the lineup won't be whole. That could be optimistic, though -- it all depends on how quickly Carl Crawford and Jacoby Ellsbury can finish up their rehab assignments.
Game 1: Jarrod Parker (73-2/3 IP, 1.6 K/BB, 156 ERA+) vs. Daisuke Matsuzaka (22 IP, 3.3 K/BB, 88 ERA+)
Parker has walked too many batters on the season, but his peripherals have improved enough where, even if he's not as likely to be as productive as his ERA+ suggests, the A's don't have to worry about him falling apart. The fact he's now missing bats with regularity is a big part of this. He'll take on Dice-K, who is, one would assume, part of the competition to retain a rotation spot, a competition focusing on Aaron Cook (81-pitch complete-game shutout in his last start) and Franklin Morales, who takes the hill in game three of this series.
Game two features former Red Sox hurler Bartolo Colon, who has an impressive K/BB despite not logging many strikeouts. He's pitched with fantastic control in 2012, handing out free passes to just 1.6 opponents per nine innings. So much time in the strike zone has resulted in some long ball issues, though, at least, relative to what you expect from a pitcher spending half of their time in cavernous O.co Coliseum. Opposite Colon will be Jon Lester, who continues to mix dominating innings with problematic ones.
In game three, it's a new face in A.J. Griffin. This will be just his third start and appearance in the majors, and the 24-year-old has packed quite a bit of success in his 12 innings thus far. He was drafted in the 13th round of the 2010 draft, and pushed his way through the minors quickly thanks to excellent command that resulted in a 5.2 K/BB over 281 frames. He'll take on Morales, who is making people forget he ever had issues with his own command, thanks to a June where he threw 25-1/3 innings and struck out 31 batters against all of three free passes.
The A's lineup is a strange mixture of gaping holes and excellent run producers, with hitters like Josh Reddick (132 OPS+), Yoenis Cespedes (131 OPS+), Seth Smith (123 OPS+), and Jonny Gomes (121 OPS+) leading the charge, despite how unlikely that might have seemed just three months ago. Another former Red Sox, Brandon Moss, has taken the first base job and excelled in his time there -- well, sort of -- hitting .229/.308/.618, with eight homers in just 21 games. Otherwise, though, it hasn't been pretty at the plate for the A's, who have a team OPS+ of just 83, last in the AL. It helps that Coco Crisp has been hitting quite a bit over the last month, but he's just one dude, and the problems with hitting have been more in the infield than the outfield, anyway.
Boston might not have their ideal lineup together -- and haven't all year -- but they rank fourth in OPS+ despite this, over 20 percentage points better relative to the league than the A's. Oakland's pitching can certainly keep them in this, and the Sox shouldn't be damned for not winning, but this is a series they should be able to take.