Red Sox-Blue Jays: Two of the AL's Best Clash for the First Time This Season

Matt DolloffCorrespondent IMay 19, 2009

One prediction that was extremely low on my list at the beginning of the 2009 season is that on May 19, the Toronto Blue Jays would be in first place in the American League East. Those who predicted correctly might still be shocked by the Blue Jays’ early success. Can anyone even name their rotation beyond uber-ace Roy Halladay?

Whoever they are, they are pitching the Blue Jays to the league’s best record at 27-14. Toronto will send three of those no-names to the mound at Fenway Park as they face the Boston Red Sox for a three-game set in arguably the most highly-anticipated AL series so far this season.

The Red Sox are coming off a rough six-game west coast road trip, their final one of the season, in which they went 2-4. Two of the losses came in the form of frustrating walk-offs, first against the Angels in a 12-inning game where the Red Sox left 34 men on base- 12 by David Ortiz.

The other walk-off defeat came at the hands of the Seattle Mariners, who scored just the second earned run off Ramon Ramirez all season with a Franklin Gutierrez RBI single in the bottom of the ninth inning. Ramirez’s ERA rose to 0.86 with the loss.

The key to the Blue Jays’ success this season has been their offense. They lead the American League with 234 runs scored, and third with 51 home runs, trailing only the Rangers and Yankees.

Most of the damage is being done by unlikely sources, as stalwarts Alex Rios and Vernon Wells have had inconsistent starts.

Second baseman Aaron Hill is having a career year, with a .345 batting average and 11 home runs, good for third in the league. Outfielder-turned-designated hitter Adam Lind is also having an outstanding season, sitting third in the league in RBI (35) behind only Evan Longoria and Jason Bay.

With a team ERA of 3.49 in 2008 and 3.85 this season, pitching depth has been there for the Jays in recent years. It’s the offense that hadn’t stepped up to support them, until now. The hot start for the Toronto offense has led to their league-best +60 run differential.

Halladay is picking up right where he left off from his Cy Young-caliber season in 2008, with eight wins to lead the league, a 2.78 ERA and a 1.04 WHIP. On pace to pitch 269 innings this season, Halladay has not thrown fewer than seven in any of his starts.

The Blue Jays have scored 69 runs of support in his nine starts, which if they keep up could earn Halladay the third 20-win season of his brilliant career.

But unfortunately for the Blue Jays, Boston will avoid Halladay in this series. Instead, the Blue Jays will roll out Brian Tallet, Brett Cecil, and Robert Ray, who are a combined 5-2 on the season.

Tallet is having a very good season, better than his stats would indicate. Not counting his one nightmarish outing at Kansas City (4+ innings, 10 earned runs), Tallet is 2-0 with a 2.82 ERA.

He is 1-1 with a 4.22 ERA in his career against the Red Sox. Tallet’s last start at Fenway, a six-inning effort allowing no runs, came on Sept. 16, 2002 when he was a member of the Cleveland Indians.

The Red Sox will counter Tuesday’s series opener with Tim Wakefield, who is coming off his worst outing of the season against the Angels. After allowing just 13 runs in his first 40 innings, Wakefield took a beating in Anaheim, allowing seven runs in four-and-two-thirds innings of work.

The Red Sox have spent the last few weeks trying to remain healthy after suffering through various injuries. Ortiz might as well be on the disabled list with his .208 batting average and astonishing ZERO home runs in 130 at-bats.

He will likely return to the lineup tonight after sitting out of the entire Seattle series, but unfortunately for Red Sox Nation will likely be put right back in the third spot in the batting order. What exactly is the threshold for the Red Sox to move Ortiz down in the order, 150 at-bats without a home run? Two hundred at-bats???

Despite Ortiz’s mammoth struggles at the plate, the Red Sox will get a boost in offense as they get Kevin Youkilis back from his DL stint Wednesday.

They will hope Youk’s oblique injury didn’t slow him down, as he was off to a tremendous start with a .393 batting average and 1.224 OPS. Daisuke Matsuzaka is also close to returning to the rotation, although Justin Masterson has been making his case to remain in that spot.

Even though the Blue Jays’ starters are pitching well- and the Red Sox’s starters, for the most part, are not- the key to this game and the series for the Red Sox will be to slow down the Blue Jays’ offense.

Despite the depth the Blue Jays have in their bullpen, the advantage in close late-inning games should go to the Red Sox, so as long as the Blue Jays don’t pound the Red Sox early or often, Boston will remain in contention.

The key to this series for the Blue Jays is to simply keep rolling. They have won seven of their last 10, and have done it with all-around performances. Some of their players may be overachieving, and this success may or may not last like the Rays did last season.

But there is one undeniable fact about the Blue Jays: Right now, this team is the best the league has to offer.