The Red Sox are back in Fenway Park with a day of rest behind them for the first time in nearly three weeks. Now, with the Rays back in town, they'll either close the gap on their playoff competition and achieve a winning record for the first time on the year, or fall back under the .500 mark and see their momentum dashed.
And what momentum it is! No, the Sox aren't on a long winning streak--in fact, they're 1-1 in their last pair of games. Instead, they're just playing winning baseball of late, going 10-3 over their last thirteen games as they've started finding some consistency to their play, rather than just trading six game losing streaks for five game winning streaks.
The results have them just 1.5 games back of the new second wild card spot--in striking distance by any measurements despite a ridiculous number of injuries leaving the two outfields and half a rotation on the disabled list. Still, that winning record has escaped them four separate times now. Can the Sox finally surmount their mental block? Or are they doomed to fail again?
Boston Red Sox (22-22) vs. Tampa Bay Rays (27-18)
Friday, May 25, 7:10 p.m. EST
NESN/MLB Network, WEEI
Jon Lester (3-3, 3.95 ERA) vs. Alex Cobb (1-0, 2.57 ERA)
Jon Lester was not at his best in his last outing, but managed to keep runs off the board well enough that four homers from the Sox were plenty to down the Phillies. Philadelphia's switch-hitters kept Lester from settling in, resulting in some big pulled hits to left field. While the Rays are amongst the best at hitting southpaws in the game, they lead up the second tier rather than bringing up the tail end of the top tier, which leaves them about as close to average as they are to elite. The key for Lester should be finding the strike zone, as they're a patient but not terribly powerful bunch.
For once, a home-grown pitcher from the Rays is not a world-beating prospect expected to win Cy Young awards. That didn't stop him Cobb from shutting down the Atlanta Braves in his first outing this year, and the Sox have often had difficulty with young, unfamiliar starters, but it's always a tall order for a relatively inexperienced righty to come up against the likes of David Ortiz and Adrian Gonzalez. He'll need to keep cool and keep his changeup under control to survive this game.
Saturday, May 26, 7:15 p.m. EST
Josh Beckett (4-4, 4.38 ERA) vs. David Price (6-3, 2.88 ERA)
Golfgate seems like the ancient past after Beckett's last two starts. 14 innings, as many strikeouts, just four walks, and all of one run--it has a way of making media tiffs and public relations seem less important. Beckett's fastball isn't what it used to be velocity-wise, but he's gotten his curveball and changeup under control of late, and is placing everything on the corners since his disaster outing. It's hard to say at the moment what exactly it is that has made Josh Beckett this year's biggest Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde act, but at least he's been Jekyll much more often than Hyde. And he always seems to turn it up against the Rays...
The Sox will still have to back up Beckett with at least some production, and to do that they'll have to score against the impressive David Price, who has done quite well against every team not named the Yankees or Red Sox. In his last outing against Boston, he suffered a slow demise, being forced to throw 83 pitches to record just nine outs, surrendering three runs along the way. It wasn't exactly a disaster, though the Sox would go on to win 12-2 (Beckett throwing eight innings of one-run ball), but Price just couldn't get back to the dugout.
Against everyone else, he's been nigh-unhittable.
Sunday, May 27, 1:35 p.m. EST
Clay Buchholz (4-2, 7.84 ERA) vs. Jeremy Hellickson (4-1, 2.73 ERA)
Clay Buchholz quickly stamped out the small glimmer of hope that his good start had provided by being completely without control and getting knocked around by the Orioles. His fastball has always been wild, and when the secondary stuff isn't on he simply can't live with that. Buchholz has something fundamentally wrong with him, and unless Bob McClure stumbled upon the golden fix over the last few days, we shouldn't be expecting much else from Buchholz.
I give up on trying to predict Jeremy Hellickson. I do. His swing-and-miss stuff didn't make the transition to the majors, he's not been particularly stingy with the walks, and he doesn't keep the ball on the ground. And yet nobody scores runs off of him. Either he and the Tampa Bay defense are made for one another, or he's an exception to the rule. If there's one pitcher I'd really like to see on just about any other team, it's Hellickson, as much just to see what happens in front of a less impressive defensive unit (and manager) as to see the Rays lose his production.