The Red Sox will kick off the second half of their season with a series against the Kansas City Royals that should provide quite the pitching showcase.
It's a little odd that said showcase starts with a matchup featuring a pitcher with a 5.42 ERA on the season, but by finishing the first half with a complete game three-hitter against the Astros, Clay Buchholz has earned the benefit of the doubt. The Red Sox are trying to ride the momentum he's established, having him bookend the All-Star break to keep him on a typical rotation schedule. He holds a 2.73 ERA in his four starts since coming off the disabled list, has recorded at least 19 outs in each game, and has a stellar 23:1 K:BB in that time.
Of course, there's something to be said for not imploding in the first half of the season. That's where Buchholz' opponent James Shields comes in. This is the Royals' last chance to cash in on the trade that brought Shields to Kansas City before he hits free agency, and if the veteran from Tampa Bay has given up a few more runs than he's used to these days, he's still been plenty good enough to win games. And for what it's worth, Boston fans might want to pay close attention to how Shields is looking these days--there's a non-zero chance that he ends up being a Red Sox target come the offseason.
The middle match features a pair of impressive up-and-coming pitchers in Rubby De La Rosa and Danny Duffy. Rubby hasn't quite been the phenom he looked like in that first outing against the Rays--notably the changeup that so confounded Tampa Bay has looked a lot more mundane in recent weeks. Still, even dropping that performance he's been a more-than-serviceable arm with at least one marquee performance to his name against the Athletics.
For all that, Danny Duffy will be the headliner. Finally back at full strength after undergoing Tommy John Surgery in 2012, Duffy has finally locked up a spot in Kansas City's rotation and is paying serious dividends early on. Opponents are hitting just .212/.282/.338 against Duffy in his 13 starts this season, leaving the young Southpaw with a 2.83 ERA in 76 innings pitched as a member of the rotation. There's nothing terribly subtle about his game--he comes after batters with a mid-90s fastball and then drops the occasional curveball in for a change of pace--but he's plenty effective all the same.
Finally we have Jon Lester vs. Yordano Ventura. Lester needs no introduction; suffice it to say that Boston's leading starter is better than ever this year, and with every game seems to be sending another message to the front office that he's deserving of top dollar. He's allowed all of five earned runs in his last six starts, holding opponents to a .479 OPS while maintaining a 1.01 ERA. Even in a series full of good pitching, Lester stands clear of the rest.
Still, that doesn't mean Yordano Ventura can be overlooked. Named the 12th best prospect in the game headed into 2014 by BaseballProspectus, Ventura has lived up to his promise early on, pitching 103 innings of 3.22 ERA ball in the first half of the season. Not only does Ventura throw plenty more changeups than Duffy, producing a less predictable mix, but he guns his fastball in at 96 MPH on the regular. He's the poster boy for Kansas City's hopes in a post-Shields world.
While each arm brings plenty to the table in their own right, it also doesn't hurt that they should have some relatively easy competition. The Red Sox and Royals are neck-to-neck in offense with a 91 wRC+, meaning each lineup is about 9% below league average. Add in some strong defenses--depending on who you ask, Kansas City ranks first in baseball by a considerable margin--and you've got the recipe for a low-scoring series.
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