This One is Huge: Red Sox Series Preview

Toronto Blue Jays vs. Boston Red Sox

September 9 – 11

Written by Eric Mercer and Dave Church

There’s no other way to put it: This series is absolutely massive. Most fans are greatly anticipating the last series of the year against the Red Sox, but the team needs to get to a point where those games matter. Right now, the Jays are in the midst (or hopefully at the end) of a slide that has seen them lose their hold on first place in the division. Well, they want it back. They are one game back of the Red Sox and a series win 2-1 would bring things back all-square with 20 games to go! The season is quickly coming to a close and despite the fact that a win has meant the same thing all year long, these games feel like they carry more weight. The Jays have lined up their three best starters right now to go against the deadly Red Sox. The pitching has been extremely consistent most of the year, but the rotation has entered a rocky period in the last couple of weeks. It would unrealistic to expect the rotation to continue to produce at the breakneck pace they have shown so far this season. As a result, the Jays offense – which has struggled to score runs recently and been largely absent for long stretches in 2016 – needs to pick it up for the last 23 games and help carry the team to the postseason.

Pitching Matchups:

Friday, August 9th – 7:07 PM ET

Marco Estrada (8-7, 3.56 ERA) vs. Rick Porcello (19-3, 3.23 ERA)

Estrada has had a tough stretch over the last four games. Prior to those games, Marco had not allowed more than three runs in a start since the middle of May. The ability to be that consistent is quite often overlooked. The troubling news, however, is that he has allowed five or more runs in three of his last four starts. That’s a complete turnaround from his form over the majority of the season. It is easy to believe Estrada’s back is the main contributor to his recent problems, though he has stated that it is feeling better than it was around the All-Star break. Either way, the Jays need Estrada to return to being Acestrada. Friday’s game is one of the bigger ones on the season thus far for the Blue Birds. They need to rattle of a win and put an end to the losing skid, and Estrada’s performance will go a long way to determining the outcome.

Porcello has been pretty impressive all season long, as I’m sure the 19 wins suggests. Despite the stat meaning very little, a number on either end of the spectrum usually indicates a pitchers quality. He also has a 3.23 ERA and a 3.8 percent walk rate. He’s not the groundballer he was when he came up, but he’s still very tough. Porcello’s primary pitches that will be on display Friday night are the sinker, fourseam, curve and change. His change is one of his better offerings, which is interesting as we will be able to see a direct comparison between him and Estrada who are both fastball / changeup pitchers (though Porcello throws more curveballs than Estrada). This season, batters are hitting just .168 against the change and whiffing 20.9 percent of the time when they swing. Comparatively, batters are hitting only .158 and whiffing a whopping 41.1 percent of the time on Estrada’s elite changeup.

Saturday, August 10th – 1:07 PM ET

J.A. Happ (17-4, 3.34 ERA) vs. Eduardo Rodriguez (2-6, 4.83 ERA)

Similar to Estrada, Happ’s performance has diminished over the last four games. He has thrown 21 1/3 innings, allowing 14 earned runs and the opponents batting average is .291. He has not been sharp, but he can wash all of that away with a impressive start on Saturday. He’ll need locate his pitches on the edges in order to keep the Red Sox off the board. It would be rare for a pitcher to not go through a period of the season where they struggle and get hit pretty hard, but the best pitchers have the capability of limiting those poor stretches to only a couple of starts. The Jays really need Happ to turn the switch back on in this pivotal series.

On the surface, Rodriguez’s numbers lead you to believe that the Red Sox are throwing out a lefty who gets bashed around on a weekly basis. While it is true that he struggled mightily to begin the season, his last two months since returning from injury have been superb. Rodriguez is coming off his best start of the year (eight innings, one hit, zero runs, five strikeouts and two walks) and in his last nine turns has posted a 2.73 ERA and 45 strikeouts in 52 2/3 innings of work. This kid is only 23 and will be a tough test for the Jays, despite their success against lefty starters.

Sunday, August 11th – 1:07 PM ET

Aaron Sanchez (13-2, 2.92 ERA) vs. Clay Buchholz (6-10, 4.99 ERA)

The Blue Jays shuffled their rotation to make sure that Aaron Sanchez got a start against the Red Sox at home. They bumped R.A. Dickey, who in all fairness, can be quite volatile by nature with the knuckleball and at this time in the year, consistency comes with a high value. Additionally, if you can get your team’s best pitcher pitching more often, you have to jump on the opportunity. Sanchez has been rock solid the last two times out and will need to be his usual groundball-machine self against the Red Sox. Boston has the capabilities of cranking the ball into the seats, and Rogers Centre traditionally helps those types of clubs, but Sanchez does a very good job of keeping the ball out of the air. Sanchez will need to keep the ball low and moving downward and the allow the tremendous infield defense of the Jays to do their job. He has done very well against Boston this year, allowing just four earned runs in 13 1/3 innings of work, and the Jays are going to need more of the same.

Clay Buchholz has been back and forth between the bullpen and the rotation all season long which isn’t traditionally a great sign for a pitcher. He is back in the rotation now where he has found little success. Buchholz showcases three different fastballs, curveball and changeup. He throws a fourseam (23%), cutter (22%), sinker (17%), curveball (19%) and the changeup (15%); and unfortunately none of them have been very good this year. His cutter and change have been average-to-above average; opponents have hit .222 and .247 respectively. In contrast, his curve has been absolutely hammered. Batters have feasted on it, averaging a hit 37.5% of the time when they swing and only whiffing 8.6%. Perhaps Buchholz should take a page out of Marco Estrada’s book, who is a very successful fastball / changeup pitcher. Despite all his struggles, he has absolutely shut down the Jays this year, allowing no runs in 7 2/3 innings on one start and one relief appearance. The Jays will need to figure him out fast if they want to win this game.

Additions and Subtractions

The Jays called up relievers Aaron Loup and Bo Schultz during the series against the Yankees, and have said those will be the final callups for September, barring injury.

The Red Sox have had a handful of recent additions to their roster, with the conclusion of Pawtucket’s season on the 5th. Catcher Christian Vazquez and pitchers Noe Ramirez and Heath Hembree joined the team, having all spent time with the big club this year. Reliever Koji Uehara also returned from the disabled list, adding depth to the back-end of Boston’s bullpen.

Keep an Eye On

Cash ‘Em In

The Jays were 6 for 28 with runners in scoring position against the Yankees, leaving a startling 25 runners on base during their stay in the Bronx. Those stranded runners loomed large with three close losses, and a total of nine runs scored during the series. With Boston’s league leading offense, and some potentially nice matchups on the mound, they can’t afford to waste that many opportunities again.

Ruin Papi’s Farewell Tour

Even in a deep Red Sox lineup, David Ortiz has continued to be a standout hitter. He has tortured a lot of teams through his career, and he has certainly enjoyed facing the Jays this season, with an OPS of 1.156 in 36 at-bats. Brett Cecil might get some key matchups against him in the late innings, as Ortiz is 6 for 30 against Cecil in his career, with only two doubles, one home run, and three RBI to his name against the Jays’ best lefty pitcher. Depending on how tightly Gibbons wants to play the matchups, Aaron Loup and Matt Dermody might draw some appearances against Big Papi as well.

Grilli Gets Good

Jason Grilli has been a revelation since coming to Toronto, fortifying a bullpen that was in desperate need of reinforcing when the Jays acquired him for basically nothing from the Atlanta Braves. His 2.88 ERA and 50 strikeouts in 34.1 innings has helped bridge the gap between a solid starting staff and closer Roberto Osuna. After going through almost the entire month of August without allowing a run, Grilli has hit a bad stretch at an unfortunate time, allowing six runs over his last three outings. As the Jays hit a crucial stretch of games against A.L. East opponents, and with the offense sputtering, they’ll need Grilli to be better than he has been recently.

Probable Lineup

Boston Red Sox

Toronto Blue Jays

Dustin Pedroia – 2B Jose Bautista – RF
Xander Bogaerts – SS  Josh Donaldson – 3B
David Ortiz – DH  Edwin Encarnacion – 1B
Mookie Betts – RF Russell Martin – C
Hanley Ramirez – 1B Michael Saunders – DH
Sandy Leon – C Troy Tulowitzki – SS
Brock Holt – LF Kevin Pillar – CF
Yoan Moncada – 3B Melvin Upton – LF
Jackie Bradley Jr. – CF Devon Travis – 2B

via Roster Resource

Final Thoughts

When looking at the Jays’ schedule initially, this would have been marked as a potentially crucial series, and that’s exactly how it turned out. The Red Sox are much like the 2015 Blue Jays: a talented team with a deep lineup but an unpredictable pitching staff. With some potentially favorable matchups, the Jays are well positioned to swing the balance in the American League East, but as we emphasized throughout this preview, they’ll need to be better than they have been recently. They lost five of their last six to teams looking up at them in the division, which might make fans a little queasy. While taking the series would be ideal, losing the series doesn’t mean the end of the season for the Jays, it just makes their path to the playoffs a little more uncertain.

Lead Photo: Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports

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