Friday, May 6, 2011

Series Preview: Twins vs Red Sox

In the latest of the Twins' early season road games against AL East foes(I've said it before, but who made this schedule?), they're shipping up to Boston to take on the Red Sox. Like the Twins, the Red Sox had many of their fans in early-season panic mode after limping out to a 2-10 start. However, they then went on to win eight of their next nine and have shown some signs of playing up to their talent level. The Twins are catching them on a bit of a down note after they dropped their last two against the Angels, with last night's loss coming in an 11-0 beatdown. The Red Sox are more towards the middle of the pack in terms of offense than the Twins and have scored 40 more runs on the season, but, like the Twins, have also struggled with their pitching, ranking near the bottom of the league in ERA, FIP and xFIP. That said, we all know that Fenway is a tough place to play, and the Twins have dropped seven in a row there, so they've certainly got their work cut out for them.

Pitching Matchups:

Scott Baker (1-2, 3.16 ERA, 4.01 FIP) vs Tim Wakefield (0-0, 4.08 ERA, 5.05 FIP)

After a shaky start to the season that saw him give up four home runs in his first two games, Baker seems to have found his groove. He looked good against the Rays, dominant against the Orioles, and slightly less overpowering against the Royals but still effective. More importantly, he's allowed no home runs in those three starts. His peripherals look mostly in line with his career averages (except for a slight uptick in walks, which seems to be some sort of disease infecting the normally strike-throwing Twins rotation this year). The Red Sox batter that he's faced most often is the currently-scuffling Carl Crawford, who owns a monster 1.286 OPS against Baker in 14 career ABs, but I'm usually not one to put much stock in these batter vs. pitcher stats over such a small sample.

Tim Wakefield will be making just his second start of the season for the Red Sox after spending most of the year coming out of the bullpen. In his only other start against Seattle on May 1st, the veteran knuckleballer was effective, allowing only one earned on three hits and striking out three. You know you're getting about 85% knuckleballs from Wakefield on any given night, and it's always a bit of an adjustment for hitters (especially the youngsters, who likely haven't faced many knuckleballs in the minors).

Brian Duensing (2-1, 2.91 ERA, 3.54 FIP) vs Clay Buccholz (2-3, 4.81 ERA, 5.87 FIP)

After earning a rotation spot during spring training, Duensing has picked up where he left off last year as one of the Twins' more consistent starters. Thus far, he's the only Twins starter to have both increased his strikeout rate (to 6.09 K/9) and lowered his walk rate (2.38 BB/9). His 3.54 FIP is the best on the team and four of his five starts have been quality starts. He obviously doesn't have the most overwhelming stuff, but for a staff in desperate need of consistency, Duensing has been a rock so far. He's been death to lefties (1.79 FIP, .222 BAA) and has yet to walk one in 45 batters faced, so hopefully he'll find success against a somewhat lefty-heavy Red Sox lineup.

Needless to say, Clay Buchholz has been a disappointment for the Sox this year. He had a monster year last year, going 17-7 with a sparkling 2.33 ERA, but much like Liriano, his command appears to have completely deserted him. He's walked 4.81 batters per nine this year, and (like Liriano) he's one of only four pitchers in baseball who have walked more batters than they've struck out. His swing percentage is down, his contact rate is up, and nothing seems to be going right for Buchholz at the moment. Some of his struggles may be due to the fact that his BABP sits at .313, whereas he had a "luckier" rate of .261 last season. He's been a solid pitcher over his still fairly young career; I just hope Saturday isn't the night he gets back on track.

Carl Pavano (2-3, 5.48 ERA, 4.41 FIP) vs. Daisuke Matsuzaka (2-3, 4.33 ERA 4.58 FIP)

This matchup actually has a few intriguing side-stories. The first side-story is that Dice-K is pitching on short-rest, having been forced into action during the 7-hour debacle that the Red Sox played against the Angels on Tuesday night. While it's true that he only threw an inning's worth of pitches, it might have used up his savings (lulz) rendering him less effective come Sunday. In all seriousness, Dice-K has pitched well against the Twins during his career holding a 2.30 ERA in 27.1 innings with a 26:11 K:BB ratio. After a couple of brutal starts to start the year, Dice-K settled down a bit and had a couple of dominant outings before against struggling in his last start and again in the inning of work he put in against the Angels.

As for Dice-K's counterpart, Pavano doesn't have much to hang his hat on either, coming off a brutal start against Kansas City in which he gave up 7 runs (6 earned) in only 5.1 innings of work. The story gets even worse when you look at Pavano's career against the Red Sox...he holds a terrible 6.09 ERA and 1.676 WHIP in 34 innings of work and an even worse 11.70 career ERA at Fenway Park (10 IP). I think the best the Twins can hope for in this one is a slug-fest, though with the way the offense has been going I'm not sure a slugfest favors the Twins either.

Francisco Liriano (2-4, 6.61 ERA, 5.62 FIP) vs. Jon Lester (4-1, 2.33 ERA, 3.47 FIP)

I suppose my impression of this one is tainted by the fact that I wasn't very impressed with Liriano's no-hitter against the White Sox. While I'm hopeful that it's a sign that Liriano is turning things around, the jury is still out on my mind. Ron Gardenhire originally came out yesterday saying that he though the Twins might decide to move Liriano's start back a day to give him some extra rest, but now it's looking like he'll start this one. I personally think this is a mistake and one need look no further than his stat sheet to see why. In 19.2 career innings against the Red Sox, Liriano has a 7.78 ERA and 1.678 WHIP and in his career at Fenway, Liriano has a 12.46 ERA and 1.846 WHIP over 8.2 innings. It makes more sense to start him at home against the Tigers on Tuesday, but hey I'm not the manager, I just write for a blog.

On the bump for the Red Sox is 27-year-old lefty hurler Jon Lester who has been absolutely lights-out lately. Let's all have a collective groan. GROAN... Ok, now that that's out of the way, we can focus on numbers. Over his last 4 outings, Lester has pitched 27 innings, given up 4 earned runs, struck out 29 batters and only walked 9. In those 4 starts, hitters have a triple-slash of .208/.276/.323 against the lefty. Lester is pretty much the 'ace' of the Red Sox rotation at this point and with the way he's been going, he's one of the best pitchers in baseball right now. Liriano might have to throw a second consecutive no-hitter to keep the Twins in this one.

Regardless of how the pitching matchups shake out, the Twins are going to need to come up with a way to score some runs to have any chance of taking a few of these games. A few suggestions to make this happen: a) have some of whatever Jason Kubel's having before tonight's game, b) run the bases at a higher-than-Little-League level, and c) secretly change out the baseball for a softball. That or just start hitting better. That'll work too.

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