Detroit Tigers (24-12) at Boston Red Sox (20-20)
Time/Place: 7:10 p.m., Fenway Park
SB Nation blog: Over the Monster
Pitching Matchup: RHP Max Scherzer (5-1, 2.04 ERA) vs. LHP Jon Lester (4-4, 2.75 ERA)
Jon Lester has been the victim of poor run support this season, as he has pitched much better than his 4-4 record and 2.75 ERA indicate. The Red Sox have scored a combined five runs in his four losses, though it's also worth mentioning that Lester allowed seven unearned runs in two of those outings. In fact, Lester's Opening Day loss to the Baltimore Orioles is his only "hard luck loss" of the season so far. He allowed two runs in seven innings while striking out eight, but the Red Sox lost 2-1. He was knocked around in a start against the New York Yankees on April 22nd, allowing eight runs on 11 hits and four walks in just 4 1/3 innings. Thanks to a pair of errors, only three of those eight runs were earned.
Lester has been absolutely dominant in his four wins, allowing six runs in 29 2/3 innings. He has 38 strikeouts to just seven walks, including a 15 strikeout performance against the Oakland Athletics on May 3rd. His overall numbers have also been quite impressive, ranking among the league leaders in several categories. He leads all pitchers with 2.2 fWAR and his 5.08 strikeout-to-walk ratio ranks fifth in the American League. He also has the lowest FIP in baseball at 2.13. Righties have struggled more than usual against him, hitting just .220/.264/.353, though they have hit all three home runs he has allowed this season.
One of the reasons for Lester's improvement against right-handed hitters could be a change in approach. He has all but scrapped his changeup and is using his cutter more often, throwing it 30% of the time to right-handed hitters. Both his cutter and curveball seem to have become his out pitches against righties; with two strikes, they are seeing one of those two pitches nearly 60% of the time compared to less than 45% in 2013. Hitters are also whiffing on both the cutter and curveball more often than they did in 2013, helping him to bump his strikeout rate back above a batter per inning for the first time since 2010.
Max Scherzer has been just as dominant as Lester in 2014, though his numbers took a hit after a lackluster start against the Minnesota Twins. Scherzer struggled to find his command, walking four batters for the first time this season. He also had command issues in his last start against the Twins, a 10-strikeout, 6-walk performance on September 25th, 2013. He only allowed two hits in that outing, however, and was still able to go seven innings before his pitch count got the better of him. Last weekend, Scherzer only made it through six innings, allowing three runs on a season-high 116 pitches.
One thing that has been evident in Scherzer's early 2014 performance is that he is becoming increasingly comfortable with his curveball. He threw it a modest 11% of the time against left-handed hitters in 2013 and has upped that rate to 14% in 2014, including a 23% rate when ahead in the count. He has completely scrapped his slider against lefties, and has resorted to using his changeup as his primary out pitch. He is throwing the change piece a whopping 40% of the time against lefties in two strike counts this year, resulting in a .606 OPS allowed. It has also resulted in a 41.3% ground ball rate, his best as a Tiger.
Hitter to fear: David Ortiz (.368/.500/.895 in 24 plate appearances)
Hitter to fail: Mike Napoli (.063/.118/.063 in 17 plate appearances)
Hot damn. For those keeping score at home, the difference between Ortiz's and Napoli's respective OPS figures against Max Scherzer is 1.215. Scherzer has made Napoli look foolish, striking him out in 7 of 16 career at-bats. Meanwhile, Ortiz has hit three home runs to just four strikeouts in 19 at-bats. The rest of the Red Sox lineup has had a fair amount of success as well. Dustin Pedroia has homered twice off Scherzer, while A.J. Pierzynski is hitting .333 in 34 plate appearances. Overall, Scherzer is just 2-4 with a 7.02 ERA in eight regular season starts against the Sox. However, it's worth noting that he posted a 2.63 ERA in four starts against the Red Sox in 2013 -- including two starts during the postseason where he racked up a combined 21 strikeouts in 13 1/3 innings.
The Red Sox still have not found their groove in 2014. They have only been one game over .500 at best and still have not put together a three-game winning streak. To make matters worse, they are coming off a series loss against the Minnesota Twins. Meanwhile, the Tigers are currently on an eight-game road winning streak and have won each of Scherzer's last five starts. That said, things change when the Tigers play at Fenway Park. They have not won a series in Boston since 2006, and are just 9-23 at Fenway since then. Lester has been just as dominant as Scherzer, though the Tigers have hit lefties much better than they did in 2013.
Scherzer and the bullpen make an early lead stand up despite some stressful situations in the later innings.