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Series Preview: Minnesota Twins

St. Petersburg, FL, USA; Minnesota Twins catcher Joe Mauer (7) hits an RBI in the fifth inning against the Tampa Bay Rays at Tropicana Field. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-US PRESSWIRE
St. Petersburg, FL, USA; Minnesota Twins catcher Joe Mauer (7) hits an RBI in the fifth inning against the Tampa Bay Rays at Tropicana Field. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-US PRESSWIRE

What's this? The Red Sox aren't facing a team expected to fight for a playoff spot this year? Is... is this real? The schedule isn't just trolling us, right?

Get used to it, as Boston's schedule is significantly simpler for them over the next few weeks. And about time, too, as beating up on some mediocre-to-bad opponents is just what this team (and our collective psyches) need. Or, as Brendan O'Toole mentioned earlier, is just what will get us all to realize that hey, 2013 looks good.

Let's wait until the Twins miraculously revert to their glory days against the Red Sox before assuming the worst, though. Especially given the slate of pitchers the Red Sox very well might feast on this series.

Game 1: Jason Marquis (5 IP, 1.5 K/BB, 61 ERA+) vs. Jon Lester (17 IP, 1.3 K/BB, 76 ERA+)

Game 2: Nick Blackburn (11-1/3 IP, 2.0 K/BB, 76 ERA+) vs. Josh Beckett (19-2/3 IP, 3.7 K/BB, 88 ERA+)

Game 3: Liam Hendriks (11-2/3 IP, 2.5 K/BB, 110 ERA+) vs. Clay Buchholz (17 IP, 1.3 K/BB, 49 ERA+)

It's still early enough in the year for one poor start to derail a player's line for the year: look no further than both Beckett and Lester for evidence of this. Buchholz, on the other hand, hasn't had a good start yet. The closest he came was the six innings he held the Rays to one run in his second start, but the problem is, he gave up four runs in the inning before that stretch began. After allowing five homers to the Yankees on Friday and striking out just two in his six innings, he could use a great appearance against the Twins just as much as the Red Sox.

Marquis is a known quantity at this point. He induces contact and has trouble both striking out hitters and keeping his walk rates down. He has moments of success, but even a depleted Boston lineup is a threat. Nick Blackburn is a bit better about the walks, but he's of the same pitch-to-contact family of pitchers. He's been below-average for his career, a stretch of well over 700 innings, and part of the reason for that is his career-high strikeout rate of 4.6. Pitching-to-contact has its benefits -- ask Buchholz or Beckett about that -- but too much of a good thing results in something like Blackburn's 2010, in which he posted a 5.42 ERA with 3.8 K/9.

Hendriks is a rookie who has sometimes missed bats in the minors, but punched out just 5.5 per nine in Triple-A over 49 innings. He's all of 23 years old, and relies heavily on his command in order to succeed. That means lots of pitches in the strike zone, the kind of thing that can either cause the Red Sox to fall behind fast, or for Hendriks to regret his ability to throw strikes.

Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau are back, but plenty of other things have changed in this Twins lineup. Jamey Carroll is the shortstop now, Josh Willingham signed on this winter to play left, and Michael Cuddyer is nowhere to be found for the first time since 2000. They've been below-average offensively over their first 16 games, and while their productive hitters are unquestionably good, most of their unproductive hitters are great at being bad -- Clete Thomas, Alexi Casilla, and Danny Valencia are all below-average offensively in their careers (in Casilla's case, by a mile), and Chris Parmelee, while solid enough, wasn't exactly tearing up the minors before the Twins stuck him at first.

It's a lineup with holes, fronted by a rotation that hopes the opposition doesn't find any. The Twins are certainly capable of wins (not that Red Sox fans would feel cocky about anything after the past week), but given what's come at Boston to this point in the year, they look like just what the Sox need.