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Sunday, June 10, 2012
Red Sox versus Marlins: Crucial June series

By David Schoenfield


Thank you for showing up, Boston Red Sox.

There are mini tests throughout a baseball season -- a series that maybe in the big picture is just another three games of 162, but hold revelations about a ballclub.

The Red Sox entered their weekend showdown with the Washington Nationals facing a challenging test against the three best starters on the best pitching staff in the National League. They were 29-28 and while they were in fifth place in the AL East, they were just three games out of first place. Despite the slew of injuries to hit their lineup, the Red Sox had scored the third-most runs in the majors.

Behind Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez and Jordan Zimmermann, the Nationals left Fenway with a sweep as the Red Sox hit .208, struck out 30 times and went 3-for-26 with runners in scoring position. The frustrating weekend concluded with Bobby Valentine getting ejected in the top of the ninth inning after Roger Bernadina had doubled home Bryce Harper with two outs for the winning run. (Harper, in case you haven't noticed, goes first-to-home like a lightning bolt.) Valentine felt Bernadina should have been called out on a 2-2 pitch.

"Good umpires had a real bad series this series -- a real bad series -- and it went one way," Valentine said after the game. "There should be a review."

Valentine is staring at a fine after those comments. Even worse, he's now staring at a six-game deficit as the first-place Tampa Bay Rays swept the Miami Marlins in the battle of Florida.

The Marlins failed in their own test in front of their home fans, as the Rays outscored them 22-7 in the sweep, hitting .302 and drawing 14 walks. This is not the way to get more fans out to the new park. After clawing back from 8-14 to start to reach 31-23, the Marlins have now lost six in a row, are five games behind the Nationals and have a season run differential of minus-28 that is tied for fourth-worst in the National League.

It makes the series starting on Monday between the Red Sox and Marlins the most intriguing series of the week. It's time for the Red Sox to stop blaming the umps and start pitching better; it's time for the Marlins to start hitting and playing with more consistency.

A few things to watch in the series:

1. Boston's defensive alignments.

David Ortiz played first base in two games in Boston's only previous road interleague series this year in Philadelphia, so presumably he'll be back there. But a defense with Ortiz at first, Adrian Gonzalez in right, Kevin Youkilis and third and Scott Podsednik or Ryan Sweeney in center is a liability, especially with all the space in Miami's outfield. The Red Sox entered Sunday ranked second in the American League in defensive runs saved at plus-35 (second in the majors to the Blue Jays), although they rank just 19th in defensive efficiency (percentage of balls in play turned into outs). Either way, a Ortiz/Gonzalez alignment makes them a much worse defensive team.

2. Marlins at the plate.

The Marlins are 12th in the NL in runs scored and 12th in OPS -- and it's not all because their new park is a difficult place to hit. In fact, that has nothing to do with it. The Marlins are last in the NL in road OPS. The main culprits? Marlins catchers are hitting .188, their first basemen (Gaby Sanchez returned Sunday after a 19-game demotion to the minors) are hitting .197, their center fielders have a .346 OBP but a .312 slugging percentage. Sanchez needs to hit but the other middle-of-the-order bat struggling is Logan Morrison, with a .227/.315/.349 line. Benched Friday and Saturday for a mental break, Morrison returned to the lineup on Sunday and went 3-for-4 with two doubles. He has battled a bad knee all season, but the Marlins may have to make a decision soon on Sanchez and Morrison. You can't afford to keep punting offense at first base and left field.

3. Josh Johnson.

The Marlins' ace draws the start in Monday's ESPN telecast against Josh Beckett. After getting knocked out in the third inning on May 4 against the San Diego Padres, Johnson's ERA stood at 6.61 and opponents were batting .359 against him. In six starts since, he has 2.95 ERA and .252 average allowed, with his BABIP dropping from an extreme .448 to a more normalized .302. It wasn't just bad luck early on, however; he was getting hit. His season line-drive percentage is still 26 percent, which ranks second-worst among major league starters to Mike Leake.

Anyway, key for Johnson is his fastball location versus left-handed batters. Check out 2012 versus 2011, when he dominated for nine starts before landing on the disabled list.

Josh Johnson heat map
Johnson has been hit hard by left-handed batters in 2012. The heat map shows why.
There's a reason he has been hit hard this year: He's not hitting that outside corner like he did previously. He held lefties to a .209 average in 2011 (.258 BABIP) but they're hitting .331 off him in 2012 (.405 BABIP). Johnson's stuff is close to what it was; he overpowered the Braves at times in his most recent start with some high heat. But what do they say? Location, location, location. It's been better lately; let's see how he does against the Boston left-handed hitters on Monday night.

4. Is Clay Buchholz back?

Buchholz starts Tuesday versus Mark Buehrle and he has been terrific his past three starts, giving up four runs in 24 innings, including a four-hit shutout against Baltimore in his most recent start. He has a 19/4 strikeout/walk ratio after struggling with a 27/27 ratio through his first nine starts. The key to Buchholz's resurgence has been his changeup. "My grip was a little off," he told the media after his win over the Baltimore Orioles. "I was able to free that up a little bit. It’s been a pitch that we tried to work on for a long time and I noticed it wasn’t the same grip I had in past years and it’s coming back."

Indeed, over his first nine starts, batters hit .375 off his changeup; in the three starts since, he has thrown the pitch 69 times and batters are 1-for-10 with five strikeouts.

So watch Buchholz's changeup and watch this crucial mid-June series. Maybe it's just another three games. Maybe it's a big three games.

My bet? The Red Sox don't have to face Strasburg, Gonzalez and Zimmermann in this series. Beckett and Buchholz, who can be prone to the home run, should enjoy Marlins Park. The Red Sox take two of three as the AL East continues to show its superiority over the NL East (it went 9-6 this past weekend without any help from the Red Sox) and the Marlins will have to head to Tampa Bay next weekend with another big test to face.

PHOTO OF THE DAY
Martin Maldonado
Martin Maldonado thoughts on called K's? Where there's a whiff, there's a win.