Tonight in Toronto, the Red Sox kick off the last leg of their 10-game road trip: A three-game series against the Blue Jays. But before we get to tonight, let’s take a quick trip back to March. More specifically, March 30.
That’s when ESPN.com published a story in which they enlisted a panel of baseball experts to make predictions on the upcoming season. And as is often the case with that sort of thing, today many of those predictions look retroactively ridiculous.
For instance, of the 42 experts, 20 picked Toronto to win the AL East. Another 12 had Toronto penciled into one of the AL’s two wild card spots. In other words, more than 75 percent of the experts predicted that the Blue Jays would make their first playoff appearance since 1993.
Meanwhile, only four panelists picked the Red Sox to make the playoffs at all, and each of those selections was of the wild card variety. In other words, more than 90 percent of the experts predicted that Boston would miss the postseason for a fourth straight season.
Here on Aug. 13, five months ago feels like five years. With 120 games in the books, the Blue Jays and Sox have swapped their projected roles. Boston is 71-49, with a three-game lead in the AL East and the second highest win total in baseball. The Blue Jays are in last place, 16 games back. Of 15 American League teams, only the White Sox and Astros have more losses than Toronto.
But in terms of this week’s series at Rogers Centre, neither what was predicted in March, nor what’s actually happened since, is any more relevant than anything else. Sure, in the big picture, the Sox now hope — or more, are expected — to make something of this season, while the Blue Jays have basically turned the page, but in the right now, everything is equal. Assuming that the Sox will ultimately achieve anything great this season is about as useful as predicting Toronto would do the same back in March. There are still too many unknowns. Too many questions yet to be answered. And regardless of where the Blue Jays stand in the AL East, this week the Sox have an opportunity to clear up some of the issues before heading home for a weekend series with the Yankees.
It starts with the pitching. Tonight, Ryan Dempster takes the mound looking to find some life in what has been an unimpressive season. While the Sox have somehow earned a win in seven of his last eight starts, Dempster’s only earned a decision in one of them. In those eight, he’s pitched into the seventh inning only once, and seen his ERA swell from a respectable 4.04 up to 4.67. At this point, the assumption is that Dempster will move into the bullpen once Clay Buchholz is finally ready to return, but at this point that return still isn’t a certainty and the meantime the Sox have work to do.
Jon Lester takes the mound on Wednesday amidst the same drama that’s surrounded him since the end of the 2011 season. Whether or not Lester still has “it” isn’t really the question because we’ve seen stretches this season alone during which the lefty has performed at the level where the Sox need him to be. Despite picking up a loss last Thursday against the Royals, Lester was actually pretty good after getting through a tough first inning (one made tougher by a Johnny Gomes error). At the end of last month, we also saw him deliver back-to-back strong outings against the Orioles and Rays. But with Lester, it’s just a matter of consistency and that aura that still lingers from the 2011 mess. Fans are fed up. The media continues to stir. Even though it’s early, there are many who believe that Lester isn’t even worthy of spot in the Sox potential playoff rotation. With the way the lefty started the season, it’s hard to believe that conversation is real, but it is, and it has some legs. It’s up to No. 31 to get out there and erase any doubt.
Finally, on Thursday, Jake Peavy starts for the third time since arriving in Boston, and in his first two starts, he showed the Sox both sides of the Peavy spectrum: 7 innings, 2 ER and 7 Ks in a victory over Arizona; 5 innings, 6 ER and 0 Ks in a loss to Kansas City. Not that Friday’s start will define anything about Peavy’s long term contributions, but at this point every start is a showcase.
On offense, the Sox will be looking to see how Will Middlebrooks holds up in his return to the bigs — and to the site of the highlight of his disappointing season. On Thursday, they’ll get a chance to test themselves against another lefty, crafty veteran Mark Buehrle. They’ll also hope to see something from Dustin Pedroia, who’s hitting .185 since the All-Star Break; and Mike Napoli, who’s hitting .203 since the break with only nine RBI.
Above all else, they’ll look to break out this recent dip into mediocrity, salvage this 10-game road trip, and come home feeling good with their eyes on the prize and focused on finishing what they’ve started.
Otherwise, they might end up like the Blue Jays. Just another team that everyone thought had a shot before letting it slip away.
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