After a weekend jaunt up to Toronto, the Red Sox return to Boston on Tuesday night, when they’ll welcome the Rays for the opener of an eight-game, 10-day homestand that’ll bring through Fenway Park three teams that won at least 90 games in 2013.
Oakland will follow Tampa Bay for a weekend set, then comes a two-game visit from Cincinnati that’s sandwiched between a couple of off-days — so in some ways this stretch might not only give the local nine a chance to settle in to the comforts of home, but it might also give us a chance to see what these Sox really are.
During a 12-14 start they’ve been remarkably unimpressive at home — where they’re 5-8 — so if they can find a way to get themselves on track against three talented teams, it could be a good sign going forward. And if not they’ll be fast-approaching the season’s quarter point as a sub-.500 club.
Either way, it stands to be an entertaining and intriguing week and a half at the old ballyard. Here are 10 players and aspects to keep an eye on as it all plays out.
1. Tampa Bay’s pitching. The Rays’ starting pitching has been their hallmark over recent seasons, but they arrive at Fenway with the sixth-worst rotation ERA in the majors (4.60) — and in this series the Sox will miss perennial Cy Young candidate David Price as well as the injured Alex Cobb and his 1.89 ERA. With journeyman Erik Bedard throwing Tuesday, and converted reliever Cesar Ramos working Thursday, the only matchup the Sox should be worried about comes Wednesday, when Chris Archer takes the ball. A 2.37 fielding independent pitching calculation suggests the 25-year-old righty has been better than his 4.11 ERA, but he did allow seven runs on 12 hits three starts ago, then four runs on nine hits in his last outing. He’s hittable. As is the Rays’ staff in general, which is part of the reason they’re currently last in the AL East.
2. Wil Myers’ Fenway return. The Rays’ young right fielder was taunted mightily during his last visit to Boston, when he opened the floodgates to the Sox’ five-run rally that busted open Game 1 of last October’s AL Division Series by letting a rather routine David Ortiz fly fall on the warning track for a ground-rule double. After the fans chanted his name, then mocked him with cheers, Myers finished 1-for-16 in the series — and now, through 24 games this April, he’s hitting .232 with a .305 on-base percentage and two homers. This will be a test.
3. Dustin Pedroia. And not only because fans going to the Fens on Wednesday will all receive his bobblehead. In 12 games since receiving a cortisone shot to combat pain his left wrist, the second baseman is batting .314 with a .417 OBP and six doubles. He’s been vintage Pedroia at the plate lately, and now that John Farrell has installed him as the everyday leadoff hitter his ability to maintain that production figures to have an even greater impact on the overall effectiveness of the Red Sox’ attack. His track record suggests the consistency will be there — as long as the wrist remains a non-factor.
4. The best team in the AL. They may not boast big names or beam with star power, but at 16-10 the Athletics have been the class of the league to this point, a distinction built on excellent pitching and outstanding play away from Oakland. Not only do the A’s have the best starters’ ERA (2.89) in the AL, they also have the best bullpen ERA (2.73) in the league, and when that’s combined with the fourth-ranked offense (at 4.9 runs per game) it’s a potent combination Billy Beane has put together. Their most apparent flaw at this point is at the end of games, where they’re only 5 of 11 in save opportunities, and they’ve thus far faced only seven .500 or better teams, but a 10-4 road record indicates a fearlessness that suggests their success is sustainable. Particularly when paired with their pitching.
(An aside: An underrated aspect of the Red Sox’ start has been the level of competition they’ve faced. Through 26 games, 23 have come against teams currently at or above .500. The Yankees, conversely, have played three such contests.)
5. Josh Donaldson and Sonny Gray. After finishing fourth in MVP voting last season, when he ranked behind only Mike Trout among AL position players according to Baseball-Reference’s version of wins above replacement (WAR), Donaldson is off to another excellent start this season. Through 26 games he’s got seven homers, 22 RBIs, and he’s already reinstalled himself among the WAR leaders, sitting third. Gray, meanwhile, is slated to pitch Sunday against the Sox after registering his first career shutout on Monday. By blanking the Rangers the 24-year-old lowered his ERA to 1.76 for the season, and 18 appearances into his big-league career it sits at 2.31. He’s quickly become the anchor of the Oakland staff.
6. All the ex-Red Sox. The A’s annual trip to Boston makes for a reunion of sorts, with five Oakland players having once called Fenway home. Jed Lowrie is the A’s shortstop, and has thus far posted an impressive .424 OBP — while staying healthy. Center fielder Coco Crisp has an .812 OPS and is perfect in seven steal attempts. Right fielder Josh Reddick is batting .429 over his last 11 games, after starting the season 4-for-41. Utility man Brandon Moss has 20 RBIs through 100 plate appearances, plus an .817 OPS. And infielder Nick Punto has a .250 average coming off the bench.
7. Hitting with runners in scoring position. Tampa’s pitching staff has had trouble containing opponents with runners in scoring position, evident in the .294 batting average it’s allowed in those situations, which ranks third-worst in baseball. The Sox could find an antidote for their own struggles (.218; 26th) in those spots over the next three days — however, it may not be a permanent fix. Oakland’s pitchers have been the best in the game when working with runners in scoring position, limiting foes to a .188 average and .263 OBP. Cincinnati, meanwhile, ranks fourth in the majors by yielding a .198 average.
8. Billy Hamilton’s speed. Swiping bags hasn’t proven quite as easy for Hamilton as it did in the minors, when he amassed 395 stolen bases in 502 games, but any time he reaches base he’ll be a focal point — for pitchers and fans alike. Getting on has been an issue, evident in his .253 OBP, but he’s hitting .282 over his past 10 games, a span in which he has five of the nine steals he’s totaled this season. His speed is rare in baseball, and should be fun to watch … if Red Sox pitchers give him the chance to run.
9. Homer Bailey. If Cincinnati’s rotation remains intact, the emerging Tony Cingrani is slated to pitch the first game in Boston. Bailey would pitch the second. He’s of particular interest to Sox fans because of the $105 million contract he signed this winter despite being an average pitcher for the duration of his career, and because thus far this season he’s sporting a 6.15 ERA and 1.79 WHIP. Jon Lester’s camp could easily make the case that the Boston lefty has been better than Bailey historically, is better now, and thus deserves a richer deal — though the club could conceivably look at Bailey’s terms, his stats, and his start as validation of any fears they may have about ultimately regretting giving a big-dollar commitment to a pitcher.
10. The weather. It’s going to be chilly while Tampa’s in town, with temperatures in Boston not supposed to reach 50 degrees Tuesday. Wednesday could be even colder, with rain that’s supposed to linger into Thursday — and that’s where the weather adds intrigue. With off-days already scheduled for Monday and Thursday of next week, it would be interesting to see what Farrell and the Sox do with their rotation if a rainout is added to the mix, as well. Might they skip the struggling Felix Doubront for a turn? Could they give Clay Buchholz more time between starts to continue building back his arm strength? Might they jumble the order a bit to leave Lester on a near-normal schedule, so as not to lose a start from their ace? All would be worth considering.