For as much as baseball fawned over the Boston Red Sox during the offseason and throughout spring training, we have not heard much from them over the past couple months. Sure, Chris Sale has been striking out everyone and there was that whole beanball thing with the Baltimore Orioles, but we haven’t reached the fever pitch (pun intended) of prior months.
While this is partly due to the New York Yankees’ hot start, it’s also because the Red Sox have been perfectly average. They started the season 21-21 and have remained a comfortable few games out of first place — never far enough out to warrant a week of “what’s wrong in Boston?” from ESPN or other media sites.
That might be changing. Immediately following that 21-21 start, the Red Sox reeled off six consecutive wins, and have improved their record to 32-27. The run was partly spurred by the return of David Price, who looked like his old self in two starts before getting shellacked by the Yankees on Thursday. The Red Sox only took one out of three in New York, but were at the tail end of a 10-game road trip.
Now, the Sox return home for a three-game tilt against the Detroit Tigers, who have been mediocre in their own right this season. The Tigers have not found that extra gear yet, but have won seven of their last nine games at Fenway Park. Can they keep it up this weekend?
Game 1: RHP Jordan Zimmermann (5-4, 5.98 ERA) vs. LHP Brian Johnson (2-0, 2.57 ERA)
The bad news: Brian Johnson threw a five-hit shutout with eight strikeouts and no walks in his last major league start. Worse yet, it came against the Seattle Mariners, who have one of the best offenses in baseball (though they can’t run the bases a lick).
The good news: Johnson has not been all that impressive in over 200 innings at Triple-A, managing a mediocre 2.19 strikeout-to-walk ratio. He is also coming off a hamstring injury that limited him to 26 pitches in his last outing, and might not be long for this game if he struggles.
While Jordan Zimmermann’s stat line could qualify as “the ugly,” he had one of his best outings of the season last Sunday, holding the Chicago White Sox to a run on seven hits in six innings. He has yet to put together consecutive good outings, but his work five days ago was certainly encouraging.
Game 2: RHP Justin Verlander (4-4, 4.63 ERA) vs. LHP Chris Sale (7-2, 2.89 ERA)
Earlier this season, this matchup had all sorts of luster. Their first meeting lived up to the billing, as Justin Verlander and Chris Sale combined to allow three runs (two earned) on eight hits in 14 2⁄3 innings. While Sale took the loss, he has continued to dominate all season long. That matchup against the Tigers was the first of eight consecutive outings with at least 10 strikeouts, and he has racked up nine strikeouts in two other starts. His Kershawian 1.85 FIP and 31.2 K-BB% both lead all MLB starters, and the Sox are 9-3 in games he has started.
Game 3: LHP Daniel Norris (2-4, 4.48 ERA) vs. LHP Drew Pomeranz (6-3, 4.02 ERA)
For as rough as Daniel Norris has looked at times this season, he has allowed five runs in a game just one time this year. He even managed a quality start in his last outing, a frustrating loss against the Los Angeles Angels on Tuesday. Unfortunately, nearly all of his outings have been like this — decent, but with a mistake or two that potentially cost the Tigers a win.
Drew Pomeranz’s season has followed a different script. The 28-year-old lefthander has limited opponents to two runs or fewer in nine of his 11 starts, with just a pair of bad outings inflating his ERA above 4. Some of those outings have been quite short — he has pitched six innings in just four starts, with four others not even lasting five frames — but he has racked up an incredible 71 strikeouts in 56 innings.
Who’s hot: Jackie Bradley Jr.
Following a breakout 2016 season that saw him earn his first All-Star nod, Bradley stumbled out of the gate in 2017, both literally and figuratively. He hyperextended his knee while running the bases at Comerica Park on April 8 and missed nearly three weeks of action. Following the injury, he hit just .159/.209/.270 over the next few weeks.
Since then, however, Bradley has been on fire. He has managed a .968 OPS since the Sox began a three-game series in St. Louis in mid-May, a 152 wRC+. He only has one stolen base during that time — and only had nine all of last season, oddly — but has five home runs and four doubles in his last 20 games played.
Who’s not: Mookie Betts
Betts is one of just 32 MLB players who have amassed at least 2.0 fWAR this season, but most of that value has come from his glove. He has already accumulated +10 defensive runs saved (DRS), and is on pace to meet his crazy +32 DRS pace from last season.
At the plate, things have not gone so well. Betts is hitting a respectable .259/.335/.452 this season, but that 106 wRC+ is nearly 30 percentage points worse than what he produced in a near-MVP season last year. The struggle has been especially real lately, as Betts is hitting just .204/.275/.344 over the past few weeks. He has upped his walk rate, but is hitting more ground balls and pop-ups than last season, a big reason why his batting average on balls in play (BABIP) has dropped from .322 to .256.
How the Tigers win this series
Whether or not the pitching staff holds things together this weekend, the Tigers will need runs. Fortunately for them, they are facing a trio of left-handed starters. The Detroit offense has managed a 110 wRC+ against southpaws this season, the fifth-highest figure in all of baseball. They have the second-highest isolated power (ISO) of any team against lefties, and have made hard contact an incredible 43.8 percent of the time.
Things might get even better for them too. Lefty masher James McCann will return to the lineup this weekend, while Nick Castellanos showed some signs of life with a home run on Thursday. Justin Upton and Victor Martinez have also hit well lately, and even Dixon Machado has gotten into the act with 10 hits in his last 23 at-bats. The Tigers offense could put a hurting on the Red Sox starters — well, two of them — and might have to if their own pitching doesn’t improve.