The Red Sox are 1-5 heading into their home opener series, a figure that's strangely an improvement over last year's 0-6 start. It isn't an ideal place to be, by any means, but it's somewhat devastating to consider that if last year's team had started like this year's, they would have made the playoffs, or at the least forced a game 163 with today's opponent.
The Rays, as stated, are real good. They're a likely playoff team, but so are two others in the AL East, as well as a pair of teams out west. Not all of these clubs can make the playoffs, and there are things that might need to break in the Rays' direction -- just like with the Red Sox -- before we just throw them a 2012 playoff spot. If Moore and Jennings continue to develop and succeed, Luke Scott bounces back, and the Rays can stay relatively healthy, their chances are as good as anyone's.
They are 4-2, tied for first in the AL East, but division placement means little at this stage, when a single loss can drop them all the way to fourth. They've had a tough schedule to start the year and have pulled through, whereas the Red Sox have dropped all but one contest on an equally-tough road. With a four-game series here, Boston could get themselves right back into things while damaging a rival's record at the same time. As always with Tampa Bay, the pitching won't make it easy.
Game 1: David Price (6-1/3 IP, 1.3 K/BB, 147 ERA+) vs. Josh Beckett (4-2/3 IP, 3.0 K/BB, 31 ERA+)
Game 2: Jeremy Hellickson (8-2/3 IP, 1.0 K/BB, N/A ERA+) vs. Clay Buchholz (4 IP, 1.0 K/BB, 22 ERA+)
Game 3: Matt Moore (6-2/3 IP, 0.8 K/BB, 154 ERA+) vs. Felix Doubront (5 IP, 2.0 K/BB, 114 ERA+)
Game 4: James Shields (13 IP, 2.0 K/BB, 57 ERA+), vs. Daniel Bard (5 IP, 6.0 K/BB, 46 ERA+)
Those early-season ERA+ numbers are pretty ridiculous. The only realistic-looking one on either team at this stage is Doubront's 114 mark, and that's probably his ceiling for starting-pitching production.
Seeing all of these names lined up like this is also a reminder that, if Buchholz and Beckett actually pitch like they are supposed to, that the pitching of these two teams matches up well. The Rays have the better staff from the outset, but if Doubront and Bard can contribute as the Sox need, the gap is much narrower than it might appear to be. Yes, it would take some best-case scenario happenings for the Red Sox to get there, but how do you think the Rays got their reputation in the first place? A whole lot went right for them to get to this point in both production and perception.
Both clubs have bullpens that have plenty of useful relievers in them, but also have the potential to pitch poorly. Boston has shown both sides of that in their six games to this point, and the Rays, while still owning a productive bullpen, aren't quite where they were before the free agent departures of 2011.
The Red Sox have the superior lineup, even if Kevin Youkilis hasn't seen fit to join the party yet. Don't discount the Rays' ability to hit, though, as they can certainly put up enough runs to help out their rotation. And if they don't hit, they can help field their way to a win. Leading the charge offensively in the early going is old friend Carlos Pena, who has a 1460 OPS and three homers already. It's safe to say he won't be hitting 81 home runs this season, but he's been on a nifty run to begin the year.
If Beckett and Buchholz pitch like they should, then this series should be a good thing for the Red Sox. If they still aren't quite right, then this sure is a bad time to be facing some of the team's most significant competition for a playoff spot. It would also help if Youkilis collected a few hits, or is Jacoby Ellsbury could turn around a slow start the same way he did last year right about now.