The Games that Matter: Red Sox Series Preview

Toronto Blue Jays @ Boston Red Sox

September 30 – October 2

Written by Kyle Matte and Joshua Howsam

The Blue Jays started the week with the wild card firmly in their grasp. A couple of bullpen meltdowns and a season-worst showing from the offence later, and the Blue Jays find themselves tie with the Orioles and needing to win some games in Boston. It’s not what anybody wanted, as a bunch of Jays players seemingly could use a rest, not to mention the ability to line up arms for a wild card matchup, but it’s the situation in which they find themselves. On the other side of the field, the Red Sox have clinched the American League East in somewhat hilarious fashion as they lost their game on a walk-off grand slam to Mark Teixeira, but took the division thanks to the Toronto loss on Wednesday. Both teams are on brief losing streaks (though Boston rested some of their regulars Thursday), but there is no doubt that this is going to be a very entertaining series.

Pitching Matchups:

Friday, September 30th – First Pitch 7:10 PM ET

RHP Marco Estrada vs. RHP Rick Porcello

Over back to back starts against the Mariners and Yankees, Marco Estrada reversed a rough stretch that encompassed much of his August and early September. From August 9th through September 14th, he completed the seventh inning just once, and averaged fewer than five innings per start over the seven appearances. Against Seattle and New York, however — two of the teams with whom the Blue Jays are battling in the fiercely competitive American League Wild Card race — Estrada got back on track in a very big way. Flashing his vintage self, Marco held the two lineups to a total of five base hits over 14 innings, striking out 15, and limiting batters to a paltry .129 BABIP. The key? Estrada parked his cut-fastball, a pitch that had been beaten the hell up over the previous two and a half months, throwing a grand total of zero of them.

The cutter looked like an excellent surprise pitch over the season’s first two months, but since June, opposing batters have recognized it, adjusted, and hit it harder and harder. Through June, July, and August — months where Marco threw the cutter between eight and thirteen percent of the time — batters hit .267, .500, and .500 against it, respectively, peaking with a devastating 1.167 slugging percentage against the pitch in August. For the season, cutters account for 11.6 percent of Estrada’s total pitches thrown, but 34.8 percent of his home runs surrendered. It’s simply not a very good pitch — easily fourth behind Marco’s four seam fastball, changeup, and curveball — and with the Blue Jays dreams of playoff baseball very much on the line, Estrada would be wise to once again shelve the cutter, lest it find its way into the Green Monster seats.

Rick Porcello is a man of many faces. Just a couple of years ago, he was an underappreciated and underrated Detroit Tiger. Last season, he was the less-than-proud owner of an ERA approaching five and was the laughing-stock “ace” of the last place Boston Red Sox. Somehow, incredibly, he’ll be seeking his twenty-third win of the season when he faces the Blue Jays on Friday night, and will be looking to put a cherry on top of his legitimately dominating, Cy Young-calibre 2016 campaign. By just about every metric, he’s neck-in-neck with Chicago’s Chris Sale, Cleveland’s Corey Kluber, and Detroit’s Justin Verlander. David Price was signed to be the ace, but instead he’s been the complementary number two to the pitcher whom Boston (and former General Manager/current Blue Jays executive Ben Cherington) acquired the previous winter.

Looking at his profile, it’s not obvious why or how Porcello has undergone such an impressive statistical transformation. His pitch usage patterns across the board are largely unchanged from 2015, his velocity has actually ticked in the wrong direction, and the movement he’s generated on his six pitch arsenal shows only the most subtle of fluctuations. Beyond what appears to be considerably more luck — his BABIP went from 32 points worse than average last year to 35 points better this year, and his strand rate has improved by 6.5 percent — the greatest difference is his rediscovered ability to suppress the long-ball; a remarkable accomplishment given his home field and the massively inflated league-wide home run rate in 2016. Porcello has made no obvious or tangible adjustments, yet has forced his weight against the tides of predictability to become one of the league’s best pitchers. When things go right for Boston, things go right for Boston. Yuck.

Saturday, October 1th – First Pitch 7:10 PM ET

J.A. Happ vs. Eduardo Rodriguez

While I wasn’t in love with the J.A. Happ signing when it occurred back in November — mostly because I still had my hopes up for a David Price return — I recognized that it was hardly the worst thing in the world to pick up a reliable back-end of the rotation arm, particularly one who possessed some intriguing upside after a dominant second-half of the 2015 season. Still, I doubt even the most optimistic fan saw Happ setting a career high in innings, pitching to his best ERA since 2009, and somehow becoming just the sixth pitcher in Blue Jays history to win 20 or more games in a season.

As written about by Joshua Howsam, the reason J.A. Happ has been much better than anyone anticipated — and certainly much better than Jays fans remember — is that he’s developed a nasty little secret with his arsenal that verges on the unprecedented. Like Estrada, Happ has a rising four seam fastball that, when elevated, gets whiffs and pop-ups high in the zone. What Happ has that Estrada doesn’t is a diving sinker, and the vertical movement gap between the two pitches is the largest in baseball. While you’d think that hitters could (and should) get comfortable against a guy throwing 73.4 percent fastballs for the season, when that includes 45 percent high four seamers and 28 percent low sinkers, batters can sit on 92 miles per hour all they want, there’s a very good chance the pitch isn’t going where they thought it would.

In the battle of lefties the Red Sox will send 23-year old Eduardo Rodriguez to the mound, who is coming off the most dominating start of his brief career last time out against the Tampa Bay Rays. He recorded only 16 outs, sure, but an incredible 13 of them came by way of the strikeout as he had all three of his pitches working. Rodriguez induced a total of 20 whiffs; 11 with the four seam fastball, seven with the changeup, and another two on his slider. Already his go-to strikeout pitch, the changeup will be even more essential for Rodriguez in this affair because, as usual, the Blue Jays will send right handed slugger after right handed slugger to the plate. His numbers are actually better overall versus righties, but his one major weakness against them has been fly balls. Rodriguez surrenders more of them to righties, they’re hit harder, they’re hit to the pull field more often, and, unsurprisingly, they leave the park a whole lot more often. If the Blue Jays can keep themselves from chasing and force Rodriguez to bring everything up and over the plate, they’ll be feasting in what could turn out to be one of the most crucial games of the year.

Sunday, October 2th – First Pitch 3:05 PM ET

R.A Dickey (or Aaron Sanchez) vs. David Price

The Blue Jays would love nothing more than to have R.A. Dickey close out the regular season with what would likely be his final farewell to the team he’s devoted himself to over the last four years. It’s not that the organization is being overly sentimental; it’s simply that if Aaron Sanchez needs to pitch Sunday on regular rest rather than in the win-or-go-home Wild Card game on Tuesday, it means the first two games of this series went very poorly, and the Blue Jays no longer find themselves guaranteed a playoff position.

Should Dickey make this start, it would be his first since September 16th and just his third over the last four weeks. The knuckleballer found himself holding the short-straw as the six-man rotation shook itself back to normalcy, with deadline addition Francisco Liriano finally discovering his stride and establishing himself as a mainstay going forward. Clearly, Dickey’s 2016 season hasn’t gone nearly the way he’d planned. He wasn’t the ace we were promised, but at 6.5 innings per start, there’s no arguing he was a valuable and reliable inning eater over his first three seasons in Toronto. That average has fallen below six this season, as John Gibbons has looked the car wreck in the face too many times; watching the same old story unfold before his eyes time and again, and has finally made a consistent and concerted effort to end the circus before games get entirely out of hand.

Otherwise, expect Sanchez to be good.

John Farrell has made the call, and the Red Sox will send their 217-million dollar man to the mound in game 162. The Red Sox manager was faced with a similar scenario to the one that John Gibbons encountered last September: do you use Price in a meaningless game and hope he doesn’t injure himself; or do you give the big man some much deserved rest and work him on the side, hoping he doesn’t get rusty? After seeing how Price fared against the Rangers on eleven days rest last October, Farrell has seemingly learned from the error of his Toronto successor. It’s unlikely to be a particularly long or arduous outing, and Farrell is certain to have a short leash given the circumstances and the weather forecast. With a stable of starters (or converted starters) in Clay Buchholz, Joe Kelly, and Henry Owens available — not to mention knuckleballer Steven Wright, who was just activated off the disabled list — there’s simply no reason to push it.

Keep an Eye On

Can the Jays Actually Hit?

Toronto’s September offensive swoon continued against Baltimore, as the Jays scored just seven runs in the series, culimating in a 2-hit shutout started by Ubaldo Jimenez. The club is hitting just .236/.336/.361 this month, as both contact and power have disappeared.  If they’re going to make the postseason, this trend needs to reverse against a trio of tough Boston arms.

Bye-bye Bats and Eddie?

If the Blue Jays fail to advance to the postseason, this could be the last time Toronto fans see two franchise icons in their familiar jerseys. Both men are free agents, and there is plenty of expectation that neither will be back. The two couldn’t be having more different seasons, as Encarnacion has set career highs in numerous categories (including games played), while Jose Bautista has had trouble staying on the field and had trouble when he does suit up to play. Either way, both of these men have provided some big hits for Blue Jays fans over the years, and they all hope there are a few magic moments left to witness

Wild (Card) Weather

Detroit and Cleveland already have a postponed game that may need to be played on Monday, and now the weather is threatening to wreak havoc on the final Blue Jays series of the year. The forecast calls for lots of rain on Friday and Saturday, continuing into Sunday (though lessening by then). If any of these games get rained out, we could see a Jays game on Monday or some Sunday doubleheader action (which would ruin the “every game starts at the same time” marketing of the last day of the regular season).

Red Sox Rest

With the division all sewn up and very little chance at catching Texas for the best record overall, there is a good chance the Red Sox will rest both their regulars and their pitchers, especially with the inclement weather forecast. As much as they probably want to beat Toronto, entering the postseason healthy has to be higher on their priority list. This could be beneficial to a Jays squad that needs every advantage it can get right now.

Additions and Subtractions

There will be no additions to either roster for the final weekend of the series, but the Blue Jays did get Devon Travis back in the lineup for Thursday’s finale with Baltimore. His health will be very important to the lineup in this series.

Probable Lineup

Toronto Blue Jays

Boston Red Sox

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

via Roster Resource

Final Thoughts

The calculus here is pretty simple. If the Jays win two of three, their season continues, at best with a home game for the wild card, at worst in a tiebreaker. If they lose two of three, they require help from the outside and that’s not a situation anybody wants. It’s going to be a tough fight, as Boston is clearly one of the elite teams, but the postseason isn’t for “good” teams. If the Jays want to continue playing, it’s time to start playing like champions.

Lead Photo: Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

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