The Red Sox will begin their second-half schedule Friday night as they take on the Tampa Bay Rays in Tropicana Field.
While the Sox had entered the last few weeks of the first half with some level of hope after a good run against National League competition, a dismal West Coast trip and a 1-3 series against the New York Yankees served to drop them back down to .500 at the traditional (if not mathematical) halfway mark.
Now they'lll need to improve in a hurry. Facing some of the toughest competition they'll have to deal with all year, the Sox are in desperate need of wins if they hope to make a case to ownership and Ben Cherington that it's worth making trades to improve the team in the short-term at the deadline.
The good news for the Red Sox is that they're finally getting healthy. Jacoby Ellsbury is expected to be back in the lineup for the first game of the series, and Clay Buchholz is scheduled to start game two. If the Sox are in desperate need of wins, they're also in their best position yet to do so.
Boston Red Sox (43-43) at Tampa Bay Rays (45-41)
Friday, July 13, 7:10 p.m. EST
Franklin Morales (1-2, 3.50 ERA) vs. Jeremy Hellickson (4-5, 3.41 ERA)
Franklin Morales finally had the honeymoon period come to an end in dramatic fashion against the New York Yankees, being tagged for six runs and four homers in just 3.1 innings of work. It's an extreme result, but not one entirely atypical of his Fenway experience so far.
If Morales is not built for Fenway, though, he's built for just about anywhere else. A 1.11 ERA on the road this season is perhaps the result of a more aggressive Morales who's not pitching afraid of the Green Monster. Tropicana Field with its fairly large size, climate controlled conditions, and of course imperfect Rays lineup should be more to his liking.
Jeremy Hellickson continues to defy years of statistical understanding of baseball which says that walking people is bad and striking people out is good. The Sox just have to lay off his bad pitches and let him do the work for them...but that's what every team he's faced has probably tried to do, and it's only very rarely worked. This could be a pitchers' duel.
Saturday, July 14, 7:10 p.m. EST
Clay Buchholz (8-2, 5.53 ERA) vs. David Price (11-4, 2.82 ERA)
There's no telling what to expect from Clay Buchholz in his first start back from his nasty case of esophagitis. He was solid for the last few weeks we saw him after a terrible opening to the season, and while his last game wasn't exactly impressive, it didn't look like he was struggling in the same ways he had before so much as that he had some bad luck and ran into his kryptonite in Logan Morrison.
The good news is that the Rays have no Logan Morrison, the bad news is that's a ton of rust to shake off. Just have to hope he's feeling at least one of his off-speed pitches, since he can usually get by with just that much.
David Price doesn't have the rust to worry about beyond that coming from the All-Star Break, and he doesn't have any of the Hellickson enigma stuff going on. Price is excellent, plain-and-simple, and for all that the Red Sox have kept him in check before, they're not likely to on any given day. If Buchholz is the same man he was over the last month than the Sox have a chance. If not, then they likely don't.
Sunday, July 15, 1:40 p.m. EST
Josh Beckett (4-7, 4.33 ERA) vs. James Shields (8-5, 4.17 ERA)
Where Josh Beckett was once in a pattern of one game off, five games on, he's been alternating good and bad one-for-one. It's a nasty pattern which probably has as much to do with his injury troubles and the competition he's faced. The good news--if you can call it that--is that he struggled against the Yankees in his last start, leaving him on pace for a good start against the Rays. That's not terribly surprising anyways, given his incredible dominance against the Rays of late. In his career, he's enjoyed a 2.82 ERA against the Rays, with even better performances these past 15 months.
It's not been a typically ace-like season by James Shields, but in a way it has. In fact, with his strikeouts and walks more-or-less the same as in his past two years, his heightened ground ball rates should be giving him some excellent returns. Unfortunately, thanks to injuries, their typically staunch infield defense has gone into the garbage. Long story short, if you're going to hit it on the ground, hit it to the left side. In fact, that's true for all three starters.