MLB: Arizona Diamondbacks at Boston Red Sox

A Week of Playoff Potential

There are few weeks that can make or break an entire season. One seven-game period can’t typically overshadow an entire 162-game marathon before September hits. Too many things can happen. There are injuries, hot streaks, cold streaks and changes throughout the roster. There are the miraculous comebacks and the ones that got away. But that longevity also determines which teams truly are the best of the best, and the ones most deserving of a postseason berth.

This week, however, might be an exception for the Red Sox.

The Sox are coming off a 4-2 homestand rectified by a sweep of the Diamondbacks and clinging to the second Wild Card spot with the Tigers, Mariners and Astros all breathing down their necks. Their rotation has gone from dreadful to mostly competent. The offense has gone from historically elite to pretty good (with the exception of Sunday’s blowout win). Their bullpen, well, see the recap of Wednesday’s game for more on that disaster. The Red Sox haven’t consistently looked like a playoff-caliber team since mid July, but even that success was minimal. One might argue they haven’t played like a contender since May.

That brings us to this week. This is the biggest week of the season thus far; the one we might look back on Oct. 1 and view as the make-or-break point of the summer. The optimist would view this as an opportunity. A good showing and the Sox can solidify their spot in the Wild Card. That means a chance to not only play in the single-elimination postseason round but perhaps host it.

The pessimist would view this as the beginning of the end for the 2016 Red Sox. Combine the Sox’s recent performance with the quality of opponents over an 11-game road trip, and you have a team that could spoil their playoff chances in seven days.

Let’s instead look at this week from a more moderate, realistic viewpoint. It starts with a makeup game in Cleveland against the Indians Monday afternoon, then it’s off to Baltimore, which owns the top Wild Card spot, for a pair of games and then Detroit for a massive four-game showdown against the Tigers. The Red Sox will still have another seven games with the O’s later this season, but this is the final matchup with the Tigers and the club’s last series against a contending team until Sept. 9.

How the playoff picture looks come Sunday may tell us what to expect come October.

The Sox have an ideal matchup against the Indians, who send Josh Tomlin to the mound against Drew Pomeranz. As average as Pomeranz has been since the trade to Boston, Tomlin has been a disaster, allowing seven earned runs in each of his last two outings. The Sox are 3-2 against the Indians this season.

There’s some good news and bad news pertaining the rest of the week. The numbers show the Red Sox have been better than the Tigers and Orioles throughout the season, and both teams have struggled of late. However, the Sox haven’t fared well against either opponent this year.

The Orioles surrendered their AL East lead to the Blue Jays last week and have dropped six of their last 10 contests. Baltimore has sat in first place for most of the season, but with the third-best run differential in the division, some of that may have been dumb luck. In other words, Baltimore hasn’t been as good as its record suggests. Just look at how their numbers compare to the Red Sox, who’ve been treading water for the bulk of two and a half months now.

Run differential TAv ISO DRA Starter ERA Bullpen ERA
Red Sox +103 .276 .182 4.13 4.47 3.88
Orioles +37 .264 .181 4.42 4.77 3.19

Baltimore’s success has come behind its power and bullpen. One could argue the Red Sox are just as good, if not better, than the O’s despite what the standings show. However, Baltimore has had the better of the matchups, going 6-4 against the Sox this season. The Orioles also send their No. 1, Chris Tillman, in the series finale to take on the ever-unpredictable David Price. Tillman allowed one run over seven innings in his lone start against the Red Sox on June 14 and has had arguably his strongest season since his All-Star campaign in 2013. Tuesday’s starter, Yovani Gallardo, struggled in his lone start against the Red Sox in April but has a 2.25 ERA in his last two outings.

Those two games are important, but the four games in Detroit are even bigger. The Red Sox were swept in their lone meeting against the Tigers two weeks ago, but Detroit was in the midst of an eight-game winning streak that propelled them into the Wild Card race at the time.

Are the Tigers really a playoff team, or an average team in the thick of it thanks to one hot streak? Here’s what the numbers say:

Run differential TAv ISO DRA Starter ERA Bullpen ERA
Tigers +15 .271 .168 4.58 4.34 4.16

Statistically speaking, there’s little debate that the Red Sox are better than the Tigers, who suffered a five-game losing streak last week, but, as we learned recently against the Yankees, that says little about what to expect in this series. Regardless, this is a big one. A strong showing could separate the Sox from the Tigers, and a poor showing could do the opposite, harming Boston’s postseason chances. Or they could split the series and nothing will really change.

Anyway, here’s what we can expect. Thursday’s series opener ultimately hinges on what the Red Sox can squeeze out of Clay Buchholz for the second straight outing, as he starts in place of the injured Steven Wright. While Buchholz gave Boston enough to nab a win Saturday against the D-backs, it’s anybody’s guess how he’ll perform in Detroit.

The most intriguing matchup of the series comes Friday between Rick Porcello and Michael Fulmer. Porcello has been a legitimate No. 1 for the Sox this season, while Fulmer’s rookie campain has been nothing short of impressive, with the right-hander posting a 3.17 DRA in 2016. Both pitchers use a primarily four-seamer/sinker mix that’s dependent on weak contact rather than blowing hitters away. Perhaps that means a nice, fast-paced game as well.

From there it’s Pomeranz and Daniel Norris, who has made just four starts this season, in a battle of mediocre pitchers. Then there’s the finale between Eduardo Rodriguez and Justin Verlander. Rodriguez allowed one run over seven innings against the Yankees last week, looking more like the pitcher Sox fans fell in love with last season. Meanwhile, Verlander has been in vintage form of late with a 1.78 ERA over his last eight starts.

Ultimately, this week won’t determine where the Red Sox wind up at the end of the season, but it should give us a good idea of what to expect the rest of the way. They’re capable of success against both teams, but past matchups and recent performance tells us that may not happen. But this is the story of the 2016 Red Sox, who have ridden a roller coaster of promise and disappointment again and again.

If we’re being realistic, there’s nothing wrong with settling for a .500 week, or 4-3 if you want to include the Indians game. That should keep the Red Sox in a playoff spot, or at least within a game of it, before a stretch that includes two series against the Rays and one against both the A’s and Padres. But those games won’t tell us about this team quite like this week’s. This is a stretch where the Red Sox could prove themselves worthy of our trust, and worthy of true playoff consideration once we reach the middle of September.

Photo by Winslow Townson/USA Today Sports Images


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