With the season nearly two months old, many of baseball's biggest surprise teams have returned to normal for better or worse. The Orioles and Royals are both back under .500 after starting the year on fire, while the Red Sox and Rays have reversed their early-year misfortune to stand amongst the best in the league.
Monday, Boston will head into Cleveland to face the one surprise team that's shown no sign whatsoever of slowing down: the Indians.
The last time these two clubs faced off, the Red Sox were expected to use the lowly Indians as a launching point to turn their season around. The result was quite the opposite, with the Indians sweeping right out of Progressive field, limiting them to just five runs in three games.
Since that time, things have gone quite differently for Boston, with the emergence of their now fourth-ranked offense (by runs scored) being the most notable difference. With their bats hot and their three best pitchers slated to start, can the Red Sox repay the Indians for their earlier humiliation?
Boston Red Sox (25-21) at Cleveland Indians (29-15)
Monday, May 23, 7:05 p.m.
Clay Buchholz (4-3, 3.42 ERA) vs. Justin Masterson (5-2, 2.52 ERA)
Already a matchup between two impressive starters, there's an added dimension to this one. Clay Buchholz and Justin Masterson came up through Boston's system together, and aside from the short period when Buchholz fell from grace while Masterson worked as a spot starter for the Sox, it has almost always been the former outshining the latter.
Now, one year after Buchholz established himself with a Cy Young level season, Justin Masterson seems to have stolen the show in Cleveland, and is looking like more than equal value for Victor Martinez as he establishes himself as their much-needed young ace. Meanwhile, Clay has recovered from his early season struggles and has looked better in his last three starts then he did even in 2010.
The question for Masterson will be whether or not he can survive against a lineup as lefty-heavy as Boston's. With southpaws currently hitting .326/.380/.434 off of him, Masterson could have more than a little trouble against the likes of David Ortiz and Adrian Gonzalez. Clay Buchholz, on the other hand, might have something of a reprieve with Travis Hafner on the disabled list, but will still have to get through a group that put up 12 runs in their last game.
Tuesday, May 24, 7:05 p.m.
Josh Beckett (3-1, 1.73 ERA) vs. Fausto Carmona, 4.76 ERA)
In his first nine starts of the year, Josh Beckett has gone from "wild card" to "pleasant surprise" to "Cy Young contender." It may be hard to remember, but it all started with a solid-if-unimpressive five inning, three earned run performance against Cleveland that has gained some serious context as the Indians have continued to roll. Beckett had his last outing cut short due to some neck stiffness brought on by cold weather, so he should be more than ready to go come Tuesday.
Fausto Carmona's season looks a lot uglier after the White Sox opened up for eight runs on him in his last start. But that's kind of been Carmona's modus operandi of late: a series of great starts spotted with one or two blow-ups. In his last 16 starts, Carmona has allowed two-or-fewer earned runs eleven times and six-or-more three times. Hopefully, the Sox catch him on a bad day.
Wednesday, May 25, 12:05 p.m.
Jon Lester (6-1, 3.68 ERA) vs. Mitch Talbot (1-0, 1.46 ERA)
It's an unusual situation when you can look at any group of three starters and consider Jon Lester the biggest question mark, but with 14 earned runs in his last three starts, it's hard not to wonder if May might not be the new April for Lester. The good news is that, if this is the case, at least the month is almost over. In the meantime, this is pretty tough competition to face for a pitcher in a slump.
Mitch Talbot, meanwhile, hasn't had any May to speak of, but is likely to make his return from the disabled list against the Sox on Wednesday. The Sox managed to build his pitch count early and chase him from the game in the fifth the last time he faced them. And while it might be hard to make him throw quite so many pitches quite so quickly, the Sox might have hopes of scoring more than two runs off of him this time with their lineup running the way it is.