The swoon season cometh in July for the Boston Red Sox for the second consecutive year.
After finishing the seventh month at a marginal 11-13 in 2008, the men of Yawkey Way stumbled out to an 8-9 start so far this July. The Sox have been especially bad since the All-Star break, dropping two of three to Toronto before being swept by the Texas Rangers.
No longer in first place and toting a season high five game losing streak entering the weekend, Boston hopes a return to Fenway will awaken their slumbering bats. And a dose of Oriole might be all they need. The Sox own a 6-1 record against Baltimore so far this season, outscoring the O’s by 20 runs in their seven contests. But will the Sox rekindle their offensive fire or swoon some more? Here’s a breakdown of this weekend’s pitching matchups and the key to the series.
BAL: Brad Bergensen (6-4) 3.51 ERA
BOS: Brad Penny (6-4) 5.02 ERA
Both pitchers have been a relative mess of late. Penny was last seen riding the pine after yielding six runs on eight hits over only five innings in a loss to the Blue Jays. Bergensen faired a little better last Saturday, but not much, giving up four runs on 10 base-knocks over six innings.
While the Orioles' rookie has dropped two of his last three starts, he's more a victim of untimely hitting, good opposing pitching and bad defense. In his 4-0 loss to Seattle, Jarrod Washburn one hit the Oriole offense, nullifying a quality, but not spectacular start from Bergensen. Then after picking up a win at home against the Blue Jays, Bergensen lost to the White Sox 4-3. After working out of a third inning jam, Bergensen allowed three consecutive hits in the fifth frame and Ty Wigginton dropped a routine throw from shortstop Cesar Izturis and the floodgates opened. Despite his recent struggles, Bergensen has only allowed more than three earned runs once in his last ten outings. In his only start against the Red Sox this year, the Orioles' hurler tossed eight innings of one run ball in a no decision.
Brad Penny also took a no decision in his only start against Baltimore on April 17 but his was more fortunate than unlucky. Penny gave up six hits and eight runs in only three innings of work at Fenway in that start. Recent history hasn't played out much better for the veteran righty either. In his last five starts, Penny has gone less than six innings four times.
Penny has been much better at home this year than away from Fenway Park, going 4-1 in Boston and bettering his road ERA by nearly a full point. It bodes well for the BoSox that Bergensen suffers from road jitters as well. All six of his wins this year came at Camden Yards and his road era is 4.57.
BAL: Jeremy Guthrie (7-8) 5.12 ERA
BOS: Jon Lester (8-7) 3.87 ERA
Saturday presents the marquee pitching matchup of the weekend pitting sometimes all-world pitcher Jon Lester against briefly brilliant Jeremy Guthrie.
Guthrie was spectacular last time out, allowing only two runs on three hits in eight innings against the White Sox on July 19. The fourth year pitcher has been inconsistent this year, watching his ERA ping-pong back and forth between the mid 4's and high 5's. He's been better of late, allowing more than three earned runs only once in his last seven starts. The O's also emerged victorious in four of Guthrie's last five outings.
Lester has been sending batters back to the dugout, bat in hand, routinely this year. In 121 innings pitched the man who defeated cancer has struck out 137 batters, good for fifth in the majors. And after starting the season with a string of poor outings save two gems, Lester has lowered his ERA in each of his past nine starts. Two of Lester's best starts this year have come against Baltimore. His lines in both those games read as follows:
April 19: 7 IP, 4 H, 0 R, 2 BB, 9 K
June 29: 7 IP, 5 H, 0 R, 0 BB, 8 K
Look for Lester to continue his string of success against the O's this weekend.
BAL: David Hernandez (2-2) 3.55 ERA
BOS: John Smoltz (1-3) 6.31 ERA
Their combined innings pitched total this year belies the title of this slide: No one really knows what to expect from either side of Sunday's pitching matchup.
The aging Smoltz signed on with the Sox in hopes of recapturing his glory days of the '90s after an extended rehabilitation of his right shoulder. So far, Smoltz has shown rare flashes of his former self. Smoltz struck out seven in only five innings against KC, allowing one run on July 11. Outside of that outing, Smoltz's once smoldering fastball now possesses as much life as Oscar De La Hoya did in his maligned career finale against Manny Pacquiao. The velocity is gone. The late punch is gone. And straight fastballs, even ones that occasionally top out at 92-93 mph get crushed by Major League hitters. If Smoltz goes beyond five innings on Sunday, the Red Sox should be thankful. If things go as expected, the bullpen should enjoy a long, taxing Sunday afternoon of work.
As for Hernandez, the 24-year-old righty boasts a lively fastball and a traditional power pitchers arsenal to accompany his 6'3", 215 pound frame. With three straight quality starts on the road against threre potential playoff teams (Los Angeles, Seattle, and New York) Hernandez is improving. The Red Sox haven't seen him yet either, a good thing for the Orioles since most young pitchers post better numbers the first time around the league than the second.
Barring the grand reawakening of the Red Sox bats or Smoltz turning back the clock to 1996, or even 2006, the O's have a good chance to steal the finale at Fenway.
The middle of the order is typically the part of the lineup that strikes fear in the heart of opposing pitchers in the first inning and the ninth innings. For the Red Sox, the heart of their order has been at the heart of their recent offensive struggles.
Entering Friday night's game, the Red Sox 3, 4, 5 and 6 hitters are hitting a combined .195. That's a whopping 47 for 241. The quartet of Kevin Youkilis, Jason Bay, J.D. Drew and David Ortiz need to break out of this prolonged funk. And if they're going to do it, Baltimore is the team they will do it against. Of those four, only Jason Bay doesn't have plus offensive numbers against the Orioles. Below are the stat lines for the Sox against Baltimore so far this year.
Ortiz: .267/.324/.400, 3 XBH, 4 RBI
Bay: .074/.235/.185, 1 HR, 3 RBI
Youkilis: .393/.500/.893, 3 HR, 10 RBI
Drew: .421/.542/1.000, 2 HR, 3 RBI, 6 RS
If the Red Sox want to score their first series win since the All-Star break, these four men need to rediscover their hitting swings. If they don't, the Sox will continue to fall in the AL East standings and could be looking up at two teams before long.