The Boston Red SOx are set to open their season with a three-game set in Detroit, facing off against the AL Central powerhouse Tigers.
While the Tigers' roster remains mostly the same from last year, the one real difference is a massive one. Signed to a 9-year, $214 million contract in late January, Prince FIelder is the sort of impact bat that can transform a team. He'll join Miguel Cabrera in forming one of the most dangerous 3-4 combos in the game.
Of course, the Tigers were no offensive slouches to begin with, scoring the fourth most runs in the majors last year en route to the ALCS, where they finally fell to the Texas Rangers. They will, however, have to watch out for regression elsewhere. Can Brennan Boesch maintain his numbers in the outfield? Is Alex Avila for real, or is he the result of a high BABIP? And how will the likes of Doug Fister survive with such a suspect defensive infield behind him?
The Red Sox, of course, have just as many questions as any other team this year. Can Jacoby Ellsbury, Dustin Pedroia, Adrian Gonzalez, and David Ortiz maintain their levels of production? Can Kevin Youkilis and Carl Crawford bounce back after mediocre and terrible seasons respectively? Is it possible for the two pitchers at the back of the rotation to be worse than John Lackey, Daisuke Matsuzaka, and their various replacements?
No, probably not to the last one.
For now, however, the Sox just have to go out there and win one. While last year's team was capable of digging itself out after an 0-6 start to the season (albeit only to collapse again come September), this year's bunch is not backed by such confidence and optimism from the fan base. Going 0-3 out the gate is exactly the sort of thing that can start a spiral. They need to win some games.
That's easier said than done, however, given the competition.
Boston Red Sox (0-0) at Detroit Tigers (0-0)
Thursday, April 5, 1:05 p.m. EST
Jon Lester (0-0, 0.00 ERA) vs. Justin Verlander (0-0, 0.00 ERA)
As always, Opening Day brings with it the challenge of the opposing team's ace, and the Red Sox couldn't have picked a harder opponent. Last year's Cy Young winner and American League MVP, Justin Verlander will strike out the side with an overpowering fastball, and then he'll really go to work on you.
Verlander would only face the Red Sox once last year, and did prove mortal, allowing three runs in eight innings to set up one of Carl Crawford's walk off hits in the ninth. It's the sort of offensive performance the Sox might well take again against such a strong opponent who showed no sign of slowing down in spring, holding a 2.03 ERA in 26 innings of work.
Of course, Jon Lester is no slouch himself, and seems to be hitting his stride just in time to take the mound in Detroit. The lefty was in rare form in his last spring training outings, flashing no-hit stuff and striking out batters at a torrid pace as he overcame the control difficulties that had been plaguing him earlier in March to remind Sox fans of why he's the ace. If he can overcome what has traditionally been a difficult park for him to pitch in, he can go toe-to-toe with Verlander any day.
Saturday, April 7, 4:05 p.m. EST
Josh Beckett (0-0, 0.00 ERA) vs. Doug Fister (0-0, 0.00 ERA)
Probably Boston's best chance for a win in the series, Saturday's game will pit the Sox' best pitcher from 2011 against the one player on the Tigers who has to be concerned with Prince Fielder's acquisition in Doug Fister.
A ground ball specialist, Fister is the type of pitcher who tends to live or die with the quality of his defense. And if there's one thing Detroit sacrificed this offseason, it was defense. Miguel Cabrera was a suspect first baseman to begin with. For a third baseman, he's a complete wreck. With Prince Fielder no great shakes on the other side of the diamond, Fister has to be dreading the great number of balls that will likely be hit their way in 2012.
The only thing Red Sox fans are dreading with Josh Beckett is the date. 2012, sadly, is not an odd-numbered year, which means--at least according to the popular superstition--that Beckett is due for a terrible season. If that's the case, however, then the signs haven't exactly been obvious. Beckett looks to be in terrific shape, and had a very strong spring. Then again, there's always that thumb injury that's been nagging him...
Sunday, April 8, 1:05 p.m. EST
Clay Buchholz (0-0, 0.00 ERA) vs. Max Scherzer (0-0, 0.00 ERA)
Another decent matchup for the Red Sox will feature two young guns trying to prove themselves.
Clay Buchholz will be trying to prove that he's all the way back from the injury that felled him halfway through the 2011 season. Max Scherzer will be trying to prove that he's capable of being the big-name pitcher that he was expected to be a few years back--the one that started to shine through in 2010 before disappearing in 2011.
If Scherzer is ready for that, he hasn't been showing it in spring trainings, allowing 21 hits and 10 runs in his last two outings against the Blue Jays and Nationals. Even in his stronger starts he's generally been allowing runs and hard contact, making it hard to trust him.
Clay Buchholz hasn't had the strongest of spring training performances either, but seemed ready to put that behind him as he flashed no-hit stuff for four innings in his last outing. Unfortunately, that day would end with two home runs for four runs, putting a damper on what had been an excellent performance. Still, if his back is healthy, Clay Buchholz is no longer the will he, won't he pitcher from 2008 and 2009, and should give the Sox a good chance to win.