Enough with the two-game series already, MLB. The Red Sox took two of two from the Seattle Mariners, but it didn't feel like a sweep, because the M's weren't in town long enough for us to mentally get to that point. Now Boston is down in Tampa Bay for a pair of games, before they'll come back north to face the Philadelphia Phillies in the first interleague series of the year. At least that one will be three games long.
The Rays lost three of four to Boston the last time they faced off, and now they are without Evan Longoria, Jeff Niemann, Brandon Allen, Kyle Farnsworth, and Desmond Jennings. Continuing the Red Sox' five-game win streak at this stage, when the Rays are a weaker team than they would be while healthy, would be good in both the short- and long-term.
Game 1: Jeremy Hellickson (42-2/3 IP, 1.8 K/BB, 125 ERA+) vs. Clay Buchholz (39 IP, 0.9 K/BB, 51 ERA+)
Game 2: Matt Moore (39 IP, 1.6 K/BB, 70 ERA+) vs. Felix Doubront (38-1/3 IP, 2.2 K/BB, 95 ERA+)
Hellickson has recovered since his early-season struggle against Boston, and now is doing what he did last year, letting the talented defense behind him guide him to an above-average ERA. As they always are, Boston is a threat to upset this balance by wearing out Hellickson with patience and the ability to hit the ball very far. Hellickson has let opponents go just 2-for-27 (with four walks) against him with runners in scoring position, while Boston has been even better with runners on than without to this point. Something's going to give tonight.
While Clay Buchholz was much improved in his last start, it's hard to be worse than he was previously. Buchholz's most-impressive outing besides his last one came against Tampa Bay, when he gave up four runs in the first inning, but then settled down to look the most like the Buchholz of old that he has all season long. As stated this morning, he still has a long way to go before we can declare him back.
Moore also struggled against the Red Sox (as did every pitcher besides James Shields in that series), and he's taking the usual AL East rookie lumps at the moment. He'll face off against Felix Doubront, who handled the Rays very well until his final frame the first time he saw them this year. As we've come to learn from Doubront, when he's on, he's very difficult to score on, but being that way for six or more innings isn't a guarantee for him.
On the bright side, Jon Lester threw a complete game on Monday, and Josh Beckett went seven on Tuesday, giving the Red Sox five quality starts in a row. This means Boston's bullpen has had time to recover from the absurd workload of the Baltimore series, even without an assist from days off in the schedule. With Doubront going in game two, and Bard up on Friday, having the bullpen rested is a positive. (Think positive thoughts about Buchholz's ability to go seven. Positive!)
Matt Joyce, Ben Zobrist, and Luke Scott have been leading the offense in Longoria's stead, as Carlos Pena has slowed down considerably since his atomic start. B.J. Upton is also back in the lineup this time around, and Will Rhymes has been called up to fill in while Zobrist shifts to the outfield.
The bullpen has been a mix of productivity and explosive awful, but at this stage, the Rays have enough arms they know can do the job, especially with Wade Davis looking like a productive arm, unlike his time in the rotation the last few seasons. Combine him with Jake McGee, J.P. Howell, Burke Badenhop, and a resurgent Fernando Rodney, and the Rays have themselves a bullpen capable of holding the leads their starters give them. The trick, then, is to not let them come in with a lead.
Boston's hitters are always up to that task, it seems, but the question, as it's been for the last few months, is whether the starters can be counted on in this plan as well.