Mid-May seems early for MLB games to take on a win-or-bust quality.
But starting with a two-game set at Tampa that begins tonight, the Boston Red Sox are entering must-win territory.
Boston has reeled off five consecutive victories to creep within two games of .500 (17–19), but there’s no telling if this represents progress or an aberration. Just look at the stretches they’ve endured or enjoyed to start the 2012 season.
- April 5–11: Lost five of six
- April 13–15: Won three straight
- April 16–21: Lost five straight
- April 23–28: Won six straight
- April 29–May 10: Lost nine of 11
- May 11–15: Won five straight
Inconsistency, thy name is Boston.
The Red Sox’s next seven series—against five different opponents and spanning 18 games—are important not just because Boston needs to establish if it’s a contender or pretender. They’re also important because of who they’re playing.
Read on for a scouting report/preview of each team on Boston’s schedule between now and June 7th.
Schedule: two-game series, May 16–17 (at Tampa); three-game series, May 25–27 (at Boston)
2012 Record (through 5/15): 23–14, Tied for first in AL East
Tampa has traditionally been a pest to Boston in the years that the Red Sox were chasing the AL East title and more.
The dynamic to this rivalry could be shifting this season.
Tampa is currently tied for the AL East lead thanks to a starting rotation in which four of the five pitchers—Jeremy Hellickson (2.95), David Price (3.10), Jeff Niemann (3.38) and James Shields (3.52)—have an ERA under 4.00. And highly-touted rookie Matt Moore hasn’t even found his comfort zone.
That reputation didn’t seem to faze the Red Sox in their first home series of the year, when they took three of four from Tampa and outscored the Rays 31–12.
Before that, Boston had dropped eight of nine to Tampa, including five of six during their late-season collapse last September. Their next five matchups could determine if the Rays still have the upper hand in this rivalry.
Schedule: three-game series, May 18–20 (at Philadelphia)
2012 Record (through 5/15): 18–19, fifth in NL East
The Phillies—who have more regular-season wins over the last two seasons (199) than any other big league team—are in the NL East cellar due to an offense that’s 19th in the majors in runs (142).
But that does nothing to diminish the accomplishments of their starting rotation. Roy Halladay has the highest ERA among Philly’s five starters—at 3.20. Cliff Lee (1.95), Cole Hamels (2.28), Joe Blanton (2.96) and Vance Worley (3.07) round out a rotation that should keep the Phillies within striking distance of the NL East-lead until Ryan Howard and Chase Utley return from injury and give the offense a boost.
The Red Sox vs.Phillies matchup this weekend is a classic strength vs. strength affair. Boston is third in the majors in team batting average (.276) and second in runs (199). The Red Sox’s problem has been consistency; they’ve scored 10 runs or more nine times but three runs or fewer 15 times.
Can they bring the lumber against one of the best starting rotations in baseball? And can they exact some semblance of revenge against Jonathan Papelbon for leaving in free agency?
Schedule: three-game series, May 21–23 (at Baltimore); three-game series, June 5–7 (at Boston)
2012 Record (through 5/15): 23–14, Tied for first in AL East
Before Baltimore’s three-game set at Fenway two weeks ago, there was a sense that the dynamics of this rivalry—hilariously one-sided in Boston’s favor during the late 2000’s—were starting to change.
That feeling remained after the Orioles swept the series in Boston, including a humiliating defeat in the third game in which Baltimore’s starting first baseman, Chris Davis, earned the win—striking out Adrian Gonzalez and Jarrod Saltalamacchia in the process.
The Orioles haven’t slowed down since then. Adam Jones (11 home runs), JJ Hardy (nine) and Matt Wieters (eight) pace an offense that gets big hits at ideal times. Their team ERA is a solid 3.49—third best in the AL and best in the division—paced by Taiwanese import Wei-Yin Chen (4–0, 2.86 ERA) and closer Jim Johnson (12-for-12 in save opportunities).
Wins against Baltimore used to be a given for the Red Sox and their fans. If the Orioles maintain the upper hand in their next six games against Boston, that mindset could start going the other way.
Schedule: four-game series, May 28–31 (at Boston)
2012 Record (through 5/15): 18–18, second in AL Central
Boston’s opening series of the 2012 season was a gruesome continuation of their collapse from 2011.
Game 1 saw them rally against Tigers closer Jose Valverde after being handcuffed by Cy Young winner Justin Verlander all afternoon, only to have both then setup man Mark Melancon and closer Alfredo Aceves falter in their debuts.
Game 2 was a 10–0 blowout in which Josh Beckett surrendered five home runs—including two each to sluggers Prince Fielder and Miguel Cabrera—in just 4.2 innings of work.
Game 3 was the worst of the series for the Sox. After the offense finally came alive, Boston’s bullpen surrendered not one but two back-breaking homers—a game-tying shot by Cabrera in the ninth (off Aceves) and a game-winner by Alex Avila in the 11th (off Melancon)—to complete a gut-wrenching sweep at the hands of the reigning AL Central champs.
Detroit has been inconsistent since that season-opening series, but no matter. Their four games at Fenway represent an opportunity for the Red Sox to exorcise the demons from that early April weekend.
Schedule: three-game series, June 1–3 (at Boston)
2012 Record (through 5/15): 19–18, fourth in AL East
Apart from Baltimore, no team in the AL has shown more improvement than the Blue Jays. For part of the early season, they were good enough to relegate the Yankees to fourth place in the AL East (to say nothing of the cellar-dwelling Red Sox).
Like the rest of the upstarts in the division, Toronto has been powered by its starting pitching. Brandon Morrow and Rickey Romero have four wins apiece, and youngsters Henderson Alvarez and Kyle Drabek give the Blue Jays two more foundations upon which to build a capable staff.
Offensively, Edwin Encarnacion (12 home runs) and Brett Lawrie (team-leading .289 batting average) have kept Toronto in the thick of things while star slugger Jose Bautista (.195 batting average) works his way through an early-season mega-slump. Once he does, this team will be even more dangerous than they are now.
The Blue Jays held the Red Sox to just eight runs when winning two of three back in April. If Boston wants to get out of the cellar and back into the AL East race, Toronto is the first team it has to overtake.