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Series preview: Red Sox return to Toronto, resume AL East slate

04.30.13 at 1:26 pm ET
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John Gibbons and the Blue Jays have had an unpleasant march through April. (AP)

The Red Sox will head north of the border for the second time already this year to open up a three-game series with the Toronto Blue Jays. The Jays will come into Tuesday a startling 9 1/2 games behind the first-place Red Sox, who own the best record in baseball and are looking to set the new club record for wins in April after matching a previous franchise high in concluding a four-game sweep against the Astros. The Sox are coming off a 10-game homestand (their longest of the season) in which they went 7-3.

Many baseball experts picked the Toronto Blue Jays to take the AL East title, with some predicting they’d win the pennant, if not the World Series. But the Blue Jays have not gotten off to the kind of start they would have liked or anticipated, heading into the last game of April in the cellar of the division with a 9-17 record. Toronto is coming home after a 1-6 roadtrip, capped by a four-game sweep in New York at the hands of the Yankees. The Jays have won only one of their series so far this year, taking two from the Royals earlier in the month (the only time they’ve won back-to-back games).

To say the Jays have been disappointing thus far would be an understatement. The roster has been ravaged by injuries both minor and major, from soreness limiting starters like Josh Johnson and R.A. Dickey to the loss of star shortstop Jose Reyes for three months due to a severely sprained ankle. But the biggest problem has been a general lack of performance. At the start of play on Monday, the Jays were as far from first place as the Marlins were in the NL East. The Astros were actually a half a game closer to the division lead than the Jays, trailing the AL West-leading Rangers by nine games.

It’s hard to pinpoint where Toronto’s biggest weaknesses have been. They’re in the bottom third of many offensive categories, including OPS, runs scored and batting average. Their pitching hasn’t been much better; the staff had the fourth highest ERA in the majors at the start of Monday’s games. With that being said, here are the matchups for the upcoming three-game series.

THE MATCHUPS

Tuesday, 4/30: Jon Lester vs. Brandon Morrow

Morrow, the only holdover from the 2012 Blue Jays’ rotation, has been very inconsistent thus far in 2013. He’s looked good at times (his first start against Cleveland in which he allowed 1 ER on 6 hits with 8 strikeouts) and looked quite bad at others (9 hits, 5 runs, 3 2/3 innings in his second start, seven runs allowed to the Yankees on April 19). Going deep into games has also been an issue; Morrow’s 6 1/3 frames in his last start was good for his longest outing of the year to date.

Lester, who will take the mound for the Sox, has looked sharp all season, coming into his sixth start with a 4-0 record and a 2.27 ERA. His last start against Oakland was not his best, when he went 5 2/3 innings while allowing six hits, six walks, and his first home run of the season, while also becoming visibly upset with the home plate umpire’s strike zone on more than one occasion. Still, he didn’t let that game spin away from him — something that Lester suggested might have happened in 2012.

Wednesday, 5/1: Clay Buchholz vs. Mark Buehrle

It seems as though Buehrle is having a hard time readjusting to pitching in the American League.  The starter has given up five or more runs in three of his five outings and currently stands at 1-1 with a 6.35 ERA. He’s also hit three batters already, one shy of his 2012 total and the same number as his 2011 and 2010 totals combined.

Buchholz, on the other hand, continued his dominance on Thursday against the Astros, allowing two earned runs in 7 2/3 innings while striking out 10. Buchholz has won all of his 2013 starts, making him the only pitcher in the big leagues with five victories. He also owns the second lowest ERA in the American League (1.19, behind Matt Moore of Tampa Bay).

Thursday, 5/2: Ryan Dempster vs. TBD

Josh Johnson was scratched from his last start on Friday because of some tightness in his triceps, and while he is expected to avoid a DL stint, it’s unclear if he’ll be ready to make his scheduled start on Thursday. He will throw a side session early in the week to gauge his readiness. If Johnson cannot go on Thursday, there isn’t a clear-cut alternative to take his place since Aaron Laffey, who made the spot start on Friday, has since been designated for assignment.

Ryan Dempster will be taking the hill for the Red Sox, looking for his second win of the season. Dempster leads the staff in strikeouts with 43, and hasn’t struck out less than 7 in a game so far in 2013.

HOT OR NOT?

Who’s Hot: Toronto

While the rotation has been struggling, the Jays’ relievers have been solid. Closer Casey Janssen is sporting a 1.13 ERA with six saves on the year, allowing only one run in eight innings and striking out 11 without walking a single batter. Steve Delabar and Brett Cecil have also looked good, both with 14 2/3 innings pitched and ERAs under 2.00.

– Another thing the Blue Jays have going for them is the longball. Catcher J.P. Arencibia currently leads the team in home runs with eight, while Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion both have seven apiece. The Jays are currently second in the American League with 33 home runs.

Adam Lind went hitless in his first 13 at-bats of the season, but since that time, he’s hit .355 in 14 games and gotten on base at a .512 clip, walking 11 times in 43 plate appearances. Even with the slow start to the season, Lind leads the team in OBP (.404) and is tied for the highest batting average (aside from Jose Reyes who was hitting .395 before his injury).

Who’s Hot: Boston

– Since his return from the disabled list at the beginning of the most recent homestand, David Ortiz has been on a tear. With two hits on Sunday afternoon, Ortiz extended a career-high 20-game hitting streak (dating back to 7/2/2012). The 37-year-old has driven in a run in all but one of his eight games thus far, and is 16-for-31 with seven extra-base hits on the season.

Mike Carp is making the most of his limited at-bats and has seen his playing time increase in the past few games due to a slumping Jonny Gomes and an injured Shane Victorino. The outfielder/first baseman has five doubles and two triples in only 11 games this year, going 10-for-22 and driving in five.

Dustin Pedroia quietly had a good homestand, going 13-for-36 while driving in five and hitting four doubles. Pedroia has yet to muscle one out of the park (it’s the longest home run drought to start the year for Pedroia since 2007), but he leads the team in walks (18), batting average (.330), and OBP (.438) among those with more than 50 plate appearances.

Who’s Not: Toronto

– Coming into the season, it seemed like Toronto might have one of the best rotations in the league, on paper at least. But injuries and poor performances have turned what was perceived as a strength into a big weakness for the Jays. In addition to Johnson’s injury, Dickey has dealt with tightness in his neck and back while Buehrle and Morrow have been mediocre and inconsistent thus far. J.A. Happ, who earned the fifth starter’s spot out of spring training, has proven to be the most reliable member of the rotation, being the sole starter with a winning record (2-1) and an ERA under 4.00 (3.86).

– Pitching isn’t the only problem; very little is going right for the Jays offensively as well.  Jose Bautista has hit seven home runs so far this season, but he hasn’t done much else. Literally half of his total hits on the year left the park (14 hits in 82 plate appearances, good for a .192 average). Emilio Bonifacio is hitting only .188 with an abysmal .232 OBP in 23 games and has yet to steal a base after swiping 30 in only 64 games a year ago. And Brett Lawrie is off to a slow start after returning from the disabled list, going 10 for 47 in 13 games so far.

Who’s Not: Boston

– Gomes is one of the few members of the lineup who has not gotten hot yet. Gomes is batting just .179 on the season and went 3-for-15 on the homestand, knocking in his first RBI of 2013. It should be noted that despite the slump at the plate, Gomes has played solid defense in left field, making a couple of impressive plays there in the last series.

– It’s pretty difficult to find a Red Sox player who isn’t contributing in one way or another in the past couple series, so Victorino, who did not play in the last series against the Astros, ends up filling out the “not hot” category. Victorino has been battling some spasms in his back for the past week or so, and had an MRI that confirmed he had inflammation in the area. It’s unclear whether or not he will be available for the start of the upcoming series, and manager John Farrell said that the turf field in the Rogers Centre might have an impact on the decision.

Read More: adam lind, Blue Jays, brandon morrow, casey janssen
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