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Red Sox Face Rays In Battle Of Slow Starters

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If someone had been predicting the Rays and Red Sox would have a combined three wins ten days into the season, they probably would've found themselves alternately ignored and laughed at. These are the AL East champions and the paper favorites to win the World Series!

But here we are on April 11, and that's exactly how things stand. Now, the teams will try and take advantage of eachother's slumps, and each has to be gunning for a sweep to get them back into things.

It's harder to get a grasp on the Rays than the Red Sox right now. We know that the Red Sox' lineup will start producing more as their numbers with RISP and BABIP issues normalize. The Rays, however, are in flux. Manny is gone, Longoria is injured, and they're struggling just as hard as the Red Sox to find quality innings from their starters. 

Offensively, it's tempting to just look at the Rays' .192 BABIP and decide they're just suffering from some bad luck. There's more to it than just that, though. Even when their luck normalizes, they'll still be dealing with the worst strikeout rate in the league, a below average walk rate, and a lineup without many major power threats.

They might have been able to survive that, though, were it not for the troubles their starting pitching has faced. Their 5.26 ERA is one of the worst in the league--though not nearly as bad as the Red Sox'--and while they haven't had the disaster outings the Sox have, they've been fairly consistently unimpressive.

Will the Red Sox get to take advantage of the Rays' mediocre arms, or are they about to run into a buzzsaw combo in Hellickson and Price? We take a look at the matchups after the jump.

Jeremy Hellickson vs. Daisuke Matsuzaka 

On the surface, this looks like an awful matchup. Daisuke Matsuzaka is consistently inconsistent, while Jeremy Hellickson is the hotshot rookie who just struck out ten Angels in under six innings. 

On the other hand, if you had to use Daisuke once in this series, this might be the best place to put him. If Hellickson represents one of the Rays' best chances to get a win, then Daisuke represents one of the Red Sox' worst. There is some good new in that the one guy who actually hits Daisuke best--Casey Kotchman, believe it or not--is out of the lineup in favor of Dan Johnson, the only player he traditionally dominates. He also catches a break with John Jaso in for Kelly Shoppach. But Matt Joyce and Ben Zobrist both kill Daisuke, and neither Jhonny Damon nor B.J. Upton are half bad against him. Worst of all, Daisuke, with his deep-seated fear of the strike zone, can't take advantage of the Rays' greatest weakness: their inability to make contact.

So why does Daisuke make sense against Hellickson? Not only because it might not be a bad idea to just go in expecting to punt one, but because on occasion Daisuke just has a miracle game. You can never see it coming, but every few games he'll go out there, spot his pitches, throw strikes, and dominate. It's taking everything I've got not to make some sort of "rolling the Dice" pun here.

As for Hellickson against the Red Sox, well, we'll just have to see. He's never really faced a challenge akin to starting against this lineup before. How he responds, and how the iffy Sox respond for that matter, is really anyone's guess.

 

Jon Lester vs. David Price

Easily the marquee matchup of the week features two of the game's best lefties, with each one having a record of dominating the other team. 

After Jon Lester's last performance against the Indians, many Sox fans are hoping that his typical slow start will end after just the one disaster this year. If he's looking to establish a positive trend, then the Rays are the team to do it against. Lester thrives off of swings-and-misses, which the Rays provide in abundance, and only struggles even slightly against Jhonny Damon and Kelly Shoppach. For the rest of the bunch? Good luck.

The Red Sox have similar struggles against David Price, as they do against most good lefties, but they do have something of an advantage, with a number of bench players who could help them match up quite a bit better. Darnnell McDonald especially has been significantly better than J.D. Drew against Price the few times he's seen him, and given Jed Lowrie's propensity to demolish southpaws he will probably make an appearance as well, be it for Marco Scutaro or even David Ortiz. Add in the unknown quantity of Adrian Gonzalez, and the Sox have the upper hand here.

Unless Lester remembers it's April.


John Lackey vs. James Shields

Take a step back from the ledge, Sox fans. John Lackey has been terrible, yes, but the Rays could be just the tonic he's been looking for. All he needs to do is throw strikes.

Really, it's as simple as that. The current bunch of Rays just can't seem to do much damage to John Lackey if he's not walking them. None of them have an OPS over .855 against him, and with only seven extra-base hits off of him in nearly 200 at bats, all Lackey needs to do is throw them strikes and let them go 1-for-4 in every inning, never really putting up any big numbers.

If he walks them, though, that's when things get tricky. You see, the combined .704 OPS that current Rays batters hold against John Lackey includes a .355 OBP helped along by a pretty impressive walk rate. And when there are guys already on the basepaths due to free passes, that's when singles can become dangerous.

For James Shields, the results against the Red Sox have been very different depending on who's up to bat. On the one hand, there's J.D. Drew, David Ortiz, and Dustin Pedroia. Against these three men, Shields may as well be Eric Gagne. On the other hand, against just about everyone else in the lineup, he may as well be King Felix. The drop off is massive: from a 1.060 OPS against J.D. Drew, straight down to .631 against Marco Scutaro. He might just consider walking Drew, Ortiz, and Pedroia whenever they come to the plate.

There are two potential difference makers here, though. The first is Marco Scutaro, who appears to have figured out James Shields in recent years, producing markedly better numbers of late. The second is some guy named Adrian Gonzalez, who has only seen Shields three times, but has a home run to his name. If they can bump up the lineup from three big threats to five, then the Rays should be worried.

Oh, and of course there's Carl Crawford. Who, after seeing David Price in the game before, should be desperate to see a righty like Shields.