Gone are meaningless spring training games with replacement-filled lineups. Positional battles have been settled, low pitch counts forgotten, and Grapefruit League standings--well, were we ever paying attention in the first place? All that's left is two teams taking their best shot at one another, each with their sights set on the same prize.
For the Red Sox and Rangers, that means Jon Lester, C.J. Wilson, and two of the most impressive lineups in the game today.
Game 1: Jon Lester vs. C.J. Wilson
With Jon Lester taking his rightful place as the Red Sox' Opening Day starter, the Red Sox should feel awfully confident in the opening match of the series. After all, by many measurements, Jon Lester was the fourth best pitcher in the game last year. He's had his fair share of success against Texas, too, holding the Rangers to a 2.62 ERA since 2008--a number that gets even lower in Arlington.
Looking deeper, though, not only can the Rangers hit, but they can hit Lester! While Jon has more than held his own against leadoff man Ian Kinsler throughout his career, Elvis Andrus, Josh Hamilton, and of course old friend Adrian Beltre haven't been too badly fooled, each managing an OPS greater than .800 against the Sox ace. The real trouble, though, comes against Michael Young and Nelson Cruz, both of whom hit Jon Lester like they're Albert Pujols.
Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for the Sox against C.J. Wilson. While most Sox have not had any significant number of at bats against the southpaw, the few that have reached double digits--Marco Scutaro, Carl Crawford, and David Ortiz--have had quite poor results indeed. Mike Cameron, replacing J.D. Drew to take on the tough lefty, has only faced him three times, recording two strikeouts in the process. While Wilson is one of the pitchers who can expect a large regression based on their peripherals last year, and the Red Sox have a fearsome lineup, Opening Day might not be the best example of either.
Game 2: John Lackey vs. Colby Lewis
Much the same problem arises with Lewis as with Wilson--the Sox just haven't seen him that much. Lackey, on the other hand, has seen plenty of the Texas Rangers, and once again, the results have been ugly. Josh Hamilton, for instance, has a crisp .429/.500/.905 batting line against the former Angels ace. His results against Ian Kinsler aren't much better.
A good deal could be decided by how Ron Washington chooses to put his lineup together Saturday. If he sticks with Julio Borbon in the outfield, John Lackey could actually have a decent shot. Kinsler, Hamilton, and Young will still be plenty scary, but David Murphy would be a fourth Lackey-killer in the lineup, while Borbon is tied with Andrus for the worst numbers against him in the bunch.
The good news for the Sox is that, as good as Colby Lewis was last year, he could be just what the doctor ordered after a day against a tough lefty. A right-handed fly ball pitcher in Arlington is great news for Carl Crawford, David Ortiz, and Adrian Gonzalez. Don't be too surprised if this one becomes something of a slugfest.
Game 3: Clay Buchholz vs. Matt Harrison
This is where things could get a bit ugly for Texas. Unless, of course, we see the return of the old tradition where the Red Sox getting shutdown by a back-of-the-rotation, 25-year-old lefty who hasn't shown much in the majors. 'Cause that's what Matt Harrison is. An artificially impressive spring training (3.91 ERA, but with a 14:11 K:BB and a few homers) and, likely, the questionable ability of the Red Sox against lefties has earned him the third spot in the Rangers' rotation to start the year.
Again, the results are limited, but the Sox do have a collective .909 OPS against Harrison in the 38 at bats they've accumulated. He's not particularly good at keeping the ball in the zone, and his stuff shouldn't play all that well against a patient Red Sox lineup, but as always we'll have to wait and see.
Buchholz continues the trend of not having the best numbers against the Rangers, but the good news is that a lot of that comes from either luck or defense. With only one homer and four doubles off of Buchholz in 60 plate appearances, the Rangers haven't exactly been killing the ball, making their .432 BABIP that much more of an outlier. With a strong defense at his back this year, hopefully that figure will be on the way down.
Overall, this series seems like it could be a very close series. Most would probably acknowledge that the Red Sox seem to be the better team on paper--all we really have to go on at this point. But the Rangers might just be one of those teams that matches up well against them. Though John Lackey and Jon Lester each have their own BABIP issues with Texas, they're not as pronounced as Buchholz', and sometimes a team just plain seems to hit you.
Both the Rangers and the Red Sox will have questions in the bullpen. With Alexi Ogando being slotted into the rotation, the Rangers are reasonably thin behind closer Neftali Feliz and Darren O'Day, who had a rather miserable spring. If the Red Sox don't get a noticeably improved Jonathan Papelbon this year, however, they'll likely be in the same boat.
The Red Sox do have at least an edge in their lineup, ace, and third starter. They also aren't relying quite as much on a question mark in David Ortiz as the Rangers are in Adrian Beltre, who has more than a few doubters to prove wrong. But between Texas' lefties and Lester's early-season problems, nobody has anything locked up.