This is but a three-day stretch in late June, but it's no stretch to call this a potential World Series preview. Neither of these clubs is unbeatable, by any means (witness the back end of the Red Sox rotation or the Phillies' inconsistent offense), but with the regular season's exact midpoint mere days away, Boston and Philadelphia are in possession of two of the three best records and two of the top three run differentials in the game for good reason.
What have we learned about the Red Sox over the last three months?
Well, first off, we learned not to put much stock into April 7 records. The Red Sox famously didn't win a game in the season's first week, putting them in a precarious position from the historical perspective, but as it turned out, a conquerable conundrum in reality.
Boston bashed its way back into coherence. Adrian Gonzalez arrived as advertised and joined Kevin Youkilis and David Ortiz in one of the most terrifying middle of the orders in the game. As a result, no team in the Majors scores more runs per game (5.31) or has a higher OPS (.799) than the Red Sox, and that's the primary reason they were able to make their run from eight games under .500 on April 15 to 16 games over on June 20.
Of course, the Yankees are not far behind (5.25, .791) in either the runs per game or OPS category, which is why the Red Sox have challenges closer to home that they must worry about before getting caught up in any Fall Classic conjecture.
The AL East is likely going to come down to starting pitching, and that's an area where the Red Sox are imperfect but not assailable. They have been guided by Josh Beckett (6-2, 1.86 ERA) and his return to Cy Young-style prominence (he goes Tuesday night opposite Cliff Lee in a highly anticipated pitcher's duel). Jon Lester (9-4, 3.66) was not his usual self in May, but is nonetheless a trusted presence every fifth day. Clay Buchholz (6-3, 3.48) should be back from a back injury next week.
It's the back end beyond that big three that's on the iffy side. John Lackey (5-6, 7.36) is having a miserable year and Daisuke Matsuzaka was lost to Tommy John surgery (and might best be described as addition by subtraction, anyway). Tim Wakefield, Andrew Miller and Alfredo Aceves have, in various turns, done an admirable job filling in, but Lackey's struggles, in particular, cast a dark cloud over the back end.
Still, any faults we find with the Red Sox are going to be a bit on the nit-picky side. They became one of only four teams in the modern era, according to STATS LLC, to start 0-6 and nonetheless achieve a .600 winning percentage at any point in the season. And the stunning speed with which they accomplished that feat is a testament to the talent on hand.
A decent chunk of that talent will be absent in this series. Big Papi will, of course, be largely relegated to the bench by NL rules, and Carl Crawford (left hamstring) and Jed Lowrie (right shoulder) are both on the DL. In losing four of six against the Padres and Pirates in the past week, the Red Sox have dropped consecutive series for the first time since late April/early May, so the Phillies might be facing them at the right time.
And what have we learned about those Phillies?
Well, for starters, we were right about their starters. When you have the kind of depth and experience the Phillies have assembled in the front end of their rotation, you can overcome a lot of ills.
The Phillies' rotation is responsible for the most wins (36), the most quality starts (53) and the best ERA (3.02) in baseball. The starters' 512 innings pitched is the most in the NL and has helped ease the burden on a bullpen that has posted the sixth-best ERA (3.10) and the fewest losses (seven) in the league.
It's no surprise that Roy Halladay (10-3, 2.40 ERA) remains quite possibly the best pitcher in baseball, and it's equally no surprise that Cliff Lee (8-5, 2.87) and Cole Hamels (9-4, 2.49) have provided ace-type excellence, as well. The only flubbed note from the fab four has come from Roy Oswalt, whose lingering back issues have him out until at least August. Furthermore, elbow problems have limited Joe Blanton to just six starts.
Oh well. The Phils will just have to carry on with three stellar starters. And they've carried on quite well, with a huge assist coming from an unexpected source in rookie Vance Worley, who is 2-1 with a 2.90 ERA in six starts. He's scheduled to throw Wednesday, opposite Lackey.
As reliable as the relief corps has been in the first half, the Phillies might look for an upgrade before the Trade Deadline. Jose Contreras and Brad Lidge won't be back anytime soon to serve as setup men for closer Ryan Madson (who is currently nursing a swollen hand), and the stellar performance from rookies Antonio Bastardo and Michael Stutes can't be taken as a given.
Where the Phillies really need a boost is in their lineup. They are right around the middle of the pack in run production, averaging 4.05 runs per game. And while the Phils' specific need for a right-handed bat, with Jayson Werth long gone, is well-documented, their performance against both right-handers (.700 OPS) and lefties (.674) has been roughly the same. It is just a ho-hum outfit, all around, and one that would surely benefit from another big bopper to take the heat off Ryan Howard. Consider that Philadelphia's No. 5 hitters are batting just .206 with a .607 OPS this season.
But unlike the Red Sox, the Phillies don't find themselves in a division dogfight. Oh sure, the Braves have kept and will continue to keep things interesting, and the Nationals have recently made noise beyond their managerial movements. But the bottom line is that the Phillies have spent all but one day in first place this season.
Both of these clubs win games at a rapid rate, but they do so in decidedly different ways -- the Red Sox piling up the runs, oblivious to the Era of the Pitcher talk, and the Phillies following the formula that carried the Giants to October glory.
It's an intriguing contrast in styles and definitely a series to watch as they face each other in Interleague Play. But this might not be the last time we see the Phillies and Red Sox square off this year.