Game 71 Preview: Red Sox at Tigers

Mitchell Layton

John Lackey and the AL East-leading Boston Red Sox come into Detroit for a four game weekend series against the Tigers. Jose Alvarez will make his second start of the year in place of the injured Anibal Sanchez.

Boston Red Sox (44-30) at Detroit Tigers (39-31)

Time/Place: 7:08 p.m., Comerica Park

SB Nation blog: Over the Monster

Media: Fox Sports Detroit, MLB Network, MLB.TV, Tigers Radio Network

Pitching Matchup: RHP John Lackey (4-5, 3.08 ERA) vs. LHP Jose Alvarez (1-0, 1.50 ERA)

John Lackey has become increasingly frustrating for me to watch this season. This has nothing to do with his pitching style or the fact that he plays for the Red Sox -- seriously, I don't understand the hate for that franchise -- or his ginormous chin. Well, on second thought, that last part is a little annoying...

Lackey frustrates me because he is what Victor Martinez should have been this season. He missed all of 2012 recovering from Tommy John surgery, but has come back in 2013 like he was cryogenically frozen after the 2009 season -- some large-chinned stunt double was the one pitching like hot garbage in 2010 and 2011 in this made-up alternate reality I'm constructing here. His strikeout rate is the highest he has had since 2006, and his walk rate hasn't been this low since 2008. He's inducing ground balls at the highest rate of his career, but his BABIP and line drive rate aren't unsustainably low by any stretch of the imagination.

Yes, I'm projecting here. Victor Martinez was supposed to do this. Unlike Lackey, Martinez played well in 2010 and 2011. He was hitting bullets all around Joker Marchant Stadium in March and has had his fair share of loud outs during the regular season too. He wasn't expected to come back and hit 25 home runs. However, you would think that his knee would not limit him from slapping singles the other way all year long, yet here we are.

Anyway, this part is about Lackey. His fastball velocity has returned to his pre-injury level in the lower 90s, but he has touched 94+ miles per hour this season. He is still snapping off sliders at a 27.5% rate this year, and his curveball has returned to being the pitch that earned him his mega deal with the Red Sox in the first place. He has yet to allow more than three earned runs this season against teams not named the Tampa Bay Rays. However, his 4.46 ERA and 4.75 FIP away from Fenway Park suggest that the previous sentence might not remain true for much longer, provided the Tigers can snap out of the offensive funk that plagued them over the last couple days.

As for Jose Alvarez, what can we say? He was brilliant in his spot start against the Cleveland Indians, keeping the Tribe off balance with a slew of off-speed pitches. He allowed five runs in 6 2/3 innings in his last start for Triple-A Toledo, striking out eight while walking just one batter. Tonight, he contends with a Red Sox lineup that has struggled against left-handed pitching this season. The Sox hit just .245/.324/.385 against southpaws, though this is largely thanks to late-inning matchups. Against lefty starters, they have hit a respectable .263/.340/.422 in 24 games.

"Wait, aren't these the guys that were supposed to be last in the AL East?"

Yeah, that's what a lot of people thought at the beginning of the year. I was slightly more optimistic, but I don't think anyone outside of the biggest homers in Boston saw this coming. The Red Sox are 14 games above .500 and have the second-best run differential in the AL, largely thanks to an offense that is putting up over five runs per game. Jacoby Ellsbury isn't putting up the behemoth numbers we saw in 2011, but he has stayed healthy, which is a huge improvement over his 2010 and 2012 seasons. Dustin Pedroia is Dustin Pedroia. David Ortiz has continued to laugh in the face of Father Time, hitting .306/.384/.598 in 55 games this season. Mike Napoli has cooled off since a blazing hot start, but I'm still very envious of that .802 OPS in the #5 spot in the lineup.

So where are the surprises? Clay Buchholz is good, but nobody thought he was "9-0 with a 1.71 ERA" good. Lackey has come back from Tommy John surgery and pitched well. Mike Carp and Jose Iglesias both have an OPS over 1.000 in limited action, while Daniel Nava is hitting .281/.381/.459. Guys like Stephen Drew, Will Middlebrooks, and the helmet-punting Jonny Gomes have struggled at times, but manager John Farrell has been able to work around these slumps with many of the guys mentioned above playing so well. And, like us, they have had some closer issues.

Outlook

Despite the frustration of the last two days, the Tigers are still in excellent shape. They are eight games over .500, Austin Jackson is on fire, and they own the best home record in the American League. Yes, the last two games have given me pause on whether I should write that "Can the Tigers win 60 games at Comerica Park?" article, but let's put away the torches and pitchforks for a bit. They still have a 3 1/2 game lead in the AL Central, and tonight is the only pitching matchup of the series that favors the Red Sox -- depending on your level of panic over Justin Verlander's last outing, that is. Even then, Lackey's road splits and track record against several Tigers hitter don't bode well for the Sox. We could be in for some offensive fireworks tonight.

Prediction

Alvarez's magic runs out, but the Tigers offense comes through late.

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