The Red Sox were swept by the Rangers in Texas this weekend after taking two of three from the Blue Jays to start their road trip. They're back at home now, looking to end their losing streak and get back to winning series and improving on the best record in baseball, and the Twins will be the ones standings in the way of those goals for the next four games.
It's early in the year, but this is an important moment for the Red Sox. They're still dealing with injuries in the bullpen, the rotation might have a hole in it as long as Felix Doubront's velocity is missing, and a series victory against the Twins could keep them afloat in a way that might not be noticeable until later in the year, when a slim lead in the AL East means more than it does in early May. Dropping this series wouldn't doom them or anything, but a competitive team needs to balance occasional dropped series against quality opponents with success against more mid-level and below clubs like Minnesota's, and missing out on one of those opportunities can cost you down the road.
Game 1 (7:10 pm ET): Vance Worley vs. Clay Buchholz
Worley was basically an average pitcher for the Phillies the last few years, at least in terms of ERA -- he topped out at 133 innings in those three seasons. Now in the American League with the Twins following the Ben Revere trade, he's seen his strikeouts drop and his homers increase, resulting in a 7.20 ERA in his first six starts and 28 innings. He's a better pitcher than this, by far, but the Red Sox are hoping they can keep Worley from remembering that fact for at least one more start.
He'll take on Clay Buchholz, in his first start since Jack Morris and Dirk Hayhurst decided to draw attention to themselves. What's disappointing about this contest, in which Major League Baseball and the umpires will be paying extra special attention to Buchholz in order to see if they can catch him in the act, is, well, two things. One, if Buchholz is once again nasty, I'm sure some people will use that as evidence that he has done nothing wrong and that all the haters can just go away. If he gives up three or four runs, we'll get the other "I told you so" crowd claiming it only happened because now he can't cheat. You know, not because Buchholz currently has an early-season ERA that's so good its corresponding ERA+ is 427, or, more than 100 percentage points ahead of anything Pedro Martinez did in his career. No, the obvious thing would be that he's cheating and now stinks, duh, not that he had great luck in addition to great pitching and might have seen the scales tip the other way for a night.
Buchholz is a pitcher with ace potential who has been showing some of that to begin 2013. His ERA in his last 28 starts and 195 innings is an even 3.00, and that's pretty great, so it's not as if Clay Buchholz: High-Quality Starter is a concept entirely residing within 2013's first few starts. Let's not act like Monday is an indication of anything in either direction, no matter how badly the narrative gods try to tell you otherwise.
Game 2 (7:10 pm ET): Scott Diamond vs. Ryan Dempster
Scott Diamond has succeeded early on with the same style of pitching that made him productive in 2012: don't walk anyone. In his last 31 starts and 195 innings in the Twins rotation, dating back to the start of 2012, Diamond has issued a free pass just 1.6 times per nine innings -- that's how he's managed three times as many strikeouts as walks despite fewer than five punch outs per nine.
Photo credit: Hannah Foslien
He'll be facing Dempster, who could not be any more different. Dempster has struck out just under 12 batters per nine, more than double Diamond's 2013 rate, but actually has an ever-so-slightly lower strikeout-to-walk ratio thanks to 4.3 walks per nine. He's also had a bit of trouble with homers, but nothing overly extreme at 1.3 per nine. So long as he keeps missing bats as often as he does, and the walks don't get anymore out of control, he should be fine on that front. It's worked to this point, as he's posted an ERA of 3.00 and ERA+ of 144 through his first six starts and 36 innings. The ERA will eventually climb, and the strikeouts drop, but Dempster has been more than doing his job as a mid-rotation arm to this point.
Game 3 (7:10 pm ET): Pedro Hernandez vs. Felix Doubront
Hernandez has made three starts and two relief appearances for the Twins, amassing a 3.92 ERA and 105 ERA+ in the 20-2/3 combined innings from those two endeavors. He's a 24-year-old left-hander, and while he's not a top prospect by any means, he has appeared in prospect lists before: Baseball America named him the #23 Padres' prospect heading into 2012. He went to the White Sox in the Carlos Quentin deal, though, then was sent to Minnesota in the in-season Francisco Liriano swap of 2012.
He has not been good in his three starts with Minnesota, walking and striking out eight batters each in 15 innings of work -- too many of the former, not enough of the latter. As you would expect from a pitcher Minnesota bothered to use a roster spot on, in his minor-league days, Hernandez walked almost no one, but also didn't strike out an overabundance of hitters. He hasn't kept the ball on the ground in his short time in the majors, either, meaning there's potential to cause damage if he can't rein the walks in.
His opponent will be Doubront, who knows a thing or two about a lack of walks. A lack of strikeouts, however, is not something this lefty could comprehend -- even with his missing velocity, Doubront is whiffing batters at high rates. This hasn't resulted in consistent quality work, however, and Doubront's ERA+ is further in the hole than it was to finish 2012. If it turns out he's injured, it would explain a lot, but for now, the lack of velocity -- and production -- is a bit disconcerting.
Game 4 (7:10 pm ET): Kevin Correia vs. John Lackey
The four-game set concludes with John Lackey in his fourth start of the year, taking on Kevin Correia. Correia seems to have ingested whatever it is that Scott Diamond typically eats, as the 11-year veteran is walking 1.5 batters per nine despite a career walk rate that more than doubles that. His control has been a bit better in general since he left the Giants in 2007, but even still, expecting him to stick at this rate is asking a bit much.
Lackey's start against the Rangers was easily his worst of the season, but three runs in five innings against the Rangers is nothing to be ashamed of. The fact he's throwing a lot of strikes, and getting some swings-and-misses, is a positive, especially against a Twins' lineup that has been well below-average to start the year, both by runs (second-to-last in the AL) and by adjusted measures like OPS+ (third-worst in the AL).
Justin Morneau continues to be disappointing, and has started the year off with a .252/.304/.369 showing. Joe Mauer is fairing better, but he hasn't flipped that switch that seems exclusive to him just yet, and is at what is, for him, a mere .286/.364/.400. Josh Willingham is hitting just .231, but has a .400 on-base percentage and .269 Isolated Power. Trevor Plouffe is hitting .238/.326/.463, and while that's solid, it's also right about where the offense ends. Aaron Hicks is fairing just slightly better than Jackie Bradley Jr. did in his initial call-up, Ryan Doumit hasn't hit much as the team's designated hitter, and, well, you saw the numbers above: if guys like Willingham, Plouffe, and Mauer are hitting, but they still can't score runs, the blame falls just about everywhere else.
If Boston can draw a few walks and take advantage of the Twins' pitch-to-contact strategy in a park meant to punish those traits, then they should be able to take this series. The Twins are just the kind of opponent the Red Sox need to recover from a tough series -- now the key will be to take advantage of that.
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