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Tigers vs. Red Sox Series Preview: What’s up with the Red Sox this season?

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Boston has gotten off to a slow start, but things are now looking up for the defending champs.

Baltimore Orioles v Boston Red Sox Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

Heading into last weekend, the Boston Red Sox were not in a good spot. The team was was 6-13, losers of three games in a row, and staring at a huge series with the first place Tampa Bay Rays. If the Rays were to win two of three, or even sweep the Sox, Boston would have been 11 games out of first place less than a month into the season. There would be plenty of time to play catch up, of course, but as our friends at Over the Monster put it, “eleven is a lot of games.”

But the defending World Series champions responded like... well, champions. The Sox swept the Rays at Tropicana Field, and their deficit (now five games) looks much more palatable. They paid a price for it — the Sox placed righthander Nathan Eovaldi on the disabled list on Saturday — but otherwise, it was a perfect weekend for the Red Sox.

The work isn’t done there, though. The Red Sox still trail Tampa and two other teams in the AL East, and are missing a couple of other pieces in Dustin Pedroia and Eduardo Nunez. They return home after a five-game road trip for a long homestand, including three more games with the Rays over the weekend.

But first up? Our beloved Detroit Tigers, who took a series of their own over the White Sox last weekend. The Tigers have struggled to hit this year, but their pitching staff has been among the AL’s best so far. If they continue to pitch well and play solid defense, they will be a tough out for any team, even one as loaded with star power as Boston.

Can the Tigers halt Boston’s progress this week? Or will the Sox return to their 2018 form and continue their rise up the standings?

Statistical comparison: Tigers vs. Red Sox

Overview Tigers Red Sox Advantage
Overview Tigers Red Sox Advantage
Batting (wRC+) 70 (14th) 79 (13th) Red Sox
Fielding (DRS) 3 (7th) -12 (12th) Tigers
Rotation (ERA-) 72 (3rd) 134 (14th) Tigers
Bullpen (ERA-) 73 (2nd) 101 (10th) Tigers
Total fWAR 3.3 (9th) 0.9 (14th) Tigers

Boston’s record might be in better shape after last weekend, but the overall numbers still paint them as one of the American League’s worst teams in 2019. The Sox rank among the AL’s worst in nearly every faced of the game, save for their bullpen (surprisingly). They have just barely been better than the lowly Tigers offensively, and rank 12th in the league with just 4.23 runs scored per game. Their 24 home runs are tied for third-worst in the AL, and their lineup, which led the AL with a .339 on-base percentage last year, is getting on base at a paltry .306 clip in 2019.

That bullpen might be the key to getting the Sox going, though. Closer Ryan Brasier saved all three of Boston’s games last weekend, and the ‘pen gave up just four runs across 13 innings of work in the three-game series. We have seen the Tigers hold slim, low-scoring leads in most of their wins this year, and it may take a few of those for Boston to get rolling as they progress through their 2019 schedule. The Red Sox bullpen, while lacking in depth, has proven capable of this so far thanks to the strong work of Brasier, Matt Barnes, and Brandon Workman (last Tuesday notwithstanding). Righthander Marcus Walden also played a big role in last weekend’s sweep.

Game times, TV listings, streaming info, etc.

Game 1: Tuesday, Apr. 23, 1:05 p.m.
Game 2: Tuesday, Apr. 23, 7:10 p.m.
Game 3: Wednesday, Apr. 24, 7:10 p.m.
Game 4: Thursday, Apr. 25, 7:10 p.m.
Venue: Fenway Park, Boston, Mass.
SB Nation site: Over the Monster
Media (all games): Fox Sports Detroit, MLB Network (Thurs.), MLB.TV, Tigers Radio Network

Red Sox lineup

Player Pos. PA HR RBI wRC+
Player Pos. PA HR RBI wRC+
Andrew Benintendi LF 82 2 11 107
Mookie Betts RF 96 4 8 101
Mitch Moreland 1B 72 7 14 147
J.D. Martinez DH 93 4 11 161
Xander Bogaerts SS 88 2 10 111
Rafael Devers 3B 88 0 3 87
Michael Chavis 2B 6 0 0 95
Jackie Bradley CF 71 0 2 -6
Christian Vazquez C 56 4 11 73

This lineup should be terrifying — it certainly was last year — but it has not yet come together in 2019. The Sox have the AL’s third-lowest wRC+ entering play on Monday, just a hair better than the Tigers and Indians a month into the season. Strangely enough, however, they have five regulars with a 100 wRC+ or better, including J.D. Martinez at 161. Mitch Moreland has been a surprise as well, with seven home runs and 14 RBI to lead the team. Mookie Betts and Andrew Benintendi haven’t been bad so far, but both have been well off the pace they set in 2018. The only problem spots have been players not currently on the roster; Eduardo Nunez, Dustin Pedroia, and Brock Holt rank as Boston’s three worst hitters to start the year. All three are currently on the injured list.

This lineup may also look a little different on Monday (weather permitting) against Matthew Boyd. The Sox have used Steve Pearce as Moreland’s platoon partner at first base against lefties, with him and Martinez flipping between third and fourth in the lineup. Andrew Benintendi may also get a day off against Boyd, who has been dominant against lefties this year — the Sox don’t have their usual depth to platoon so heavily, though, with Dustin Pedroia and Eduardo Nunez currently on the injured list.

Pitching matchups

Game 1: LHP Matthew Boyd (1-1, 2.96 ERA) vs. LHP Chris Sale (0-4, 8.50 ERA)

Chris Sale is the most egregious case of the slow starts that have plagued the Red Sox this year, but the end of his struggles might be in sight. His seven strikeouts to just one walk in his last start was his most Sale-like performance yet, and his fastball velocity has been trending upward over his past few outings. Assuming he’s not hiding any injuries — no guarantee, given how his last couple years have gone — he should be back to his normal, dominant self soon.

Game 2: RHP Spencer Turnbull (0-2, 3.43 ERA) vs. RHP Hector Velazquez (0-1, 2.84 ERA)

If the Tigers and Red Sox are able to get their game in on Monday — the forecast is not great, Bob — Boston will need to figure out their rotation for Tuesday. Nathan Eovaldi was placed on the 10-day injured list with an elbow issue over the weekend, and a starter has not yet been announced. Hector Velazquez is expected to get the nod after a three-inning start against the Orioles last week, but manager Alex Cora won’t hesitate to skip him should his club get an unexpected off day on Monday. Velazquez, a 30-year-old righthander, has been a decent swingman for the Red Sox over the past few years. He primarily relies on a low-90s fastball and a splitter, with an above-average ground ball rate offsetting a relatively mediocre strikeout rate.

Game 3: RHP Tyson Ross (1-2, 3.38 ERA) vs. LHP Eduardo Rodriguez (1-2, 7.20 ERA)

Eduardo Rodriguez has also struggled to open the 2019 season, but his issues are not as easily identifiable as Sale’s. His first start of the spring came in late February, not mid-March, and he was up to a full workload (105 pitches) by his first start of the regular season. Rodriguez’s velocity is down a tick, and he has given up a home run in each of his first four starts, but his last couple outings have been a bit better than his first two. His swinging strike rate is also a bit higher than it was last year, so we may see a bit of a breakout from him at some point as the year goes on.

Game 4: RHP Jordan Zimmermann (0-3, 4.94 ERA) vs. RHP Rick Porcello (0-3, 8.47 ERA)

Add Rick Porcello to the list of Red Sox starters that have been struggling to open the year. He was also a “victim” of the late start to spring training, having made his spring debut on March 10. And like Rodriguez, his numbers have been a little better in his past two starts. He has not been all that efficient, however, throwing 90-plus pitches in both outings while recording just 12 and 17 outs, respectively. He has also been uncharacteristically wild, with 13 walks in his first 17 innings of the year. Nothing else has changed much, save for a bit more of his four-seam fastball than usual, but it’s tough to make any sweeping conclusions until he gets a few more innings under his belt.

What we’re rooting for: kicking them while they’re down

The Red Sox are coming off a convincing three-game sweep over the upstart Rays, but still have a losing record on the year. They have struggled offensively, haven’t quite gotten their pitching going, and are down one of their starters now that Nathan Eovaldi is on the injured list — and the only one performing well (David Price) pitched on Sunday and won’t be available in this series. The bullpen has been a bit of a mess as well, with the sort of depth issues we saw many times over when Dave Dombrowski was at the helm here in Detroit.

As I mentioned prior to the Tigers’ series in New York earlier this month, the Tigers absolutely have to take advantage of struggling teams whenever possible if they hope to exceed expectations this year. The Red Sox might be rounding into form, but aren’t quite there yet. If the Tigers offense can carry last weekend’s mini-outburst forward into the coming week, they might be able to surprise yet another AL East opponent on the road with a couple of wins.