Boston isn't the only team stuck in a suddenly-crowded division. The Marlins are currently sitting where Boston was about a week ago: in fourth place, despite a winning record, chasing enough other teams to make the fan base nervous. It's a big series for both clubs, as the Marlins could use some separation from the fifth-place Phillies in the standings -- or, at the least, to keep pace with the Mets, Pirates, Giants, and others involved in the Wild Card race -- while the Red Sox could stand to get back to .500 or over it. The major difference between the two is that the Red Sox should be over .500, according to their +20 run differential, while the Marlins have been outscored by 28 runs, yet sit above .500.
Boston visits Miami, to see new uniforms, a new stadium, and in a new city. There are also some new faces here, with Jose Reyes at shortstop, Chicago transplants Mark Buehrle and Carlos Zambrano in the rotation, and Heath Bell in the bullpen. Reyes hasn't made much of an impact in the first year of his six-year, $106 million contract, as he's hitting just .274/.353/.367, for an OPS+ of 93. Bell owns a 6.35 ERA after 27 games, and is walking nearly as many batters as he's walking -- it's not a very Heath Bell-esque season to this point. Zambrano has been solid, though, with a 117 ERA and 1.8 K/BB in his 76 innings, while Buehrle is the lone major free agent to be earning his paycheck to this point.
It's early, but bumping the payroll from $57 million to $101 million hasn't done what the Marlins hoped it would just yet.
Game 1: Josh Johnson (71 IP, 2.7 K/BB, 91 ERA+) vs. Josh Beckett (71-1/3 IP, 3.2 K/BB, 105 ERA+)
Game 2: Mark Buehrle (80 IP, 3.3 K/BB, 119 ERA+) vs. Clay Buchholz (73-1/3 IP, 1.5 K/BB, 73 ERA+)
Game 3: Ricky Nolasco (74-1/3 IP, 2.1 K/BB, 95 ERA+) vs. Felix Doubront (66-1/3 IP, 2.7 K/BB, 97 ERA+)
Johnson isn't having a very Josh Johnson campaign, striking out just 7.5 per nine with a 2.7 K/BB. He is, however, keeping the ball in the park as he usually does -- he's allowed all of a dozen bombs in his last 315 innings -- and his ERA is uglier than his 2.91 FIP suggests it should be, by more than a run-and-a-half. Beckett has been somewhat up-and-down in 2012, but the former Marlin has a 25/5 K/BB in his last five starts, in which he's also held opponents to a 508 OPS and thrown at least seven innings each time out. The strikeouts aren't always there, but he's been productive nonetheless.
Buehrle leads the Marlins in innings, and ranks second among starters in ERA+. He doesn't (and never has) succeeded in a typical way, but the lefty works fast, induces double plays, and keeps walks to a minimum, and he does all of those things very well. He'll be taking on Clay Buchholz, who, while he has ugly season stats, owns a 3.10 ERA in his last six starts and 40-plus innings, thanks to improved control and the return of his change-up and strikeout stuff. Those events, by the way, are related.
Last, Boston will face Ricky Nolasco, who is rarely as good as his stuff suggests he should be. In 2012, he's not missing bats like he generally does, but it hasn't hurt him much to this point -- his current ERA+ is actually better than his previous three-year rate, despite the worsened peripherals. That's unlikely to last forever, with the Red Sox hoping to regress him right off the mound as early as Wednesday. He'll be facing Felix Doubront, who is coming off of his shortest start since May 1. Doubront struck out six Nationals, and walked just two, but also gave up six runs and eight hits in four innings, including a homer.
The Marlins might not have Bryce Harper or Stephen Strasburg like the Nationals do, but they have their own youthful attractions. Giancarlo Stanton is having his breakout campaign, hitting .294/.371/.570. It's much like his previous work, but with fewer strikeouts, meaning the already-talented 22-year-old might have learned a new trick.
Stanton is one of the only Marlins doing much hitting, though, as Omar Infante -- who surprisingly carried the offense early -- has seen his bat cooling off, while the aforementioned Reyes hasn't heated up at all. Just three of the lineup's regulars own an OPS+ over 100, and multiple positions are just flat-out awful this season: specifically, John Buck (45 OPS+) and Gaby Sanchez (55) have been dragging down the lineup. The struggles of the latter make the Marlins a possible destination for Kevin Youkilis, though, should they be interested in spending some of the money they didn't get to use on Albert Pujols this past winter.
As this series is on the road, Boston won't be able to utilize their designated hitter. This means someone in the Will Middlebrooks, Adrian Gonzalez, Kevin Youkilis, David Ortiz positional foursome is going to be left out in the cold. Bobby Valentine might rotate them a bit over the next week (Boston is also on the road against the Cubs later this week), but the rules make it so that all four won't be in the lineup at once, regardless.