Red Sox And Blue: A's Tackle Boston

After escaping Texas with just one win in four games, the Oakland A's will look to create some momentum before hitting the four-day All-Star break next week by facing the Boston Red Sox at home. Chris Biderman previews the three-game series.

The Oakland A's have a quick turnaround to deal with after the tough series against the AL West division leaders. But the A's might be facing Boston at just the right time after the Red Sox's offense struggled in winning two of four up in Seattle.

The Red Sox dealt with a tumultuous April clouded with turmoil to finish .500 for the month. Since then, they have gone 30-26, climbing back into third place in the American League East. Their plus-57 run differential ties them for the third-best mark in baseball and is a credit to the club's outstanding lineup.

Boston is towards the top in nearly every offensive category despite not getting major contributions from some of the usual suspects. New third baseman Will Middlebrooks has played very well since coming up in his first 48 major league games this season with a .298/.335/.538 slash line with 10 home runs. The 23-year-old's standing with the club is so high, the team shipped off former linchpin Kevin Youkilis to the White Sox for a marginal package in return.

Middlebrooks came into the season rated as a quality prospect by most accounts, but his season so far has certainly surpassed those expectations. He started the season with Triple-A Pawtucket, and went on to hit nine home runs in just 24 games, forcing Boston's hand for a promotion to the big leagues.

But Middlebrooks injured his hamstring in Sunday's extra-inning win over Seattle while stealing second base. The team is waiting to find out if it's just a pull or tear, but he could miss the most, if not the entire series. He is out of the lineup on Monday. That would leave the Sox with a Nick Punto and Brent Lillibridge platoon at third base, unless the team clears a spot on the 40-man roster for former Athletic Andy LaRoche, who signed recently inked a minor league deal with Boston.

Red Sox catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia appears to be realizing the potential that made him one of the top catching prospects in the game when he was in the Rangers' organization. This year he has an 838 OPS with 15 home runs, despite getting on base at just a .302 clip.

Boston DH David Ortiz is having another great season after many believed his skills were deteriorating in 2009. In his three seasons since then, he has had a 941 OPS and has averaged more than 27 home runs a year.

The Red Sox have found a way to remain in the hunt despite being hit hard by injuries. The team lost center fielder and 2011 MVP candidate Jacoby Ellsbury early in April to a sublexed shoulder and Carl Crawford hasn't played in a game this season. Both could be back at some point after the break.

While he hasn't spent any time on the disabled list, second baseman Dustin Pedroia has been dealing with a thumb injury that has caused some struggles, especially in the power department. The Woodland, Calif., native managed a home run Sunday, but it was his first since May 10. While his .265/.325/.403 slash line isn't bad, it certainly doesn't align with his OPS from the four seasons prior.

For the A's, Yoenis Cespedes is starting to put together the type of run at the plate the team was hoping for when they signed him before the season started. In 11 games since returning from his hamstring injury, he's put together a slash line of .317/.378/.585 with three home runs and nine driven-in. It might have taken the first couple months for Cespedes to adjust to life as a major leaguer. But it appears Cespedes is starting to settle in and get comfortable in the cleanup hole of the lineup. If he continues to stay healthy, Cespedes should be a major run producer for the A's the rest of the season.

Right fielder Josh Reddick should be looking forward to facing his former team. He was one of three players that Boston sent to the A's in return for Ryan Sweeney and Andrew Bailey in December. As a rookie with the Red Sox in 2011, Reddick became a fan favorite by putting together a 784 OPS in 87 games and caught the eye of Oakland's front office.

Reddick has been perhaps the A's best and most consistent position player throughout the year, both offensively and defensively. His 858 OPS with 18 home runs and 49 runs scored ultimately wasn't enough to get him on to the AL squad for the All-Star game, but it's unlikely 2012 will be his only chance. Reliever Ryan Cook got the nod to represent the A's in the mid-summer classic. Cook has a 1.54 ERA and 0.94 WHIP on the year and was named closer in early June. The rookie has seven saves.

To kick off the series Monday night, A's manager Bob Melvin will send talented youngster Jarrod Parker (4-3, 2.57) to hill where he will face Daisuke Matsuzaka (0-2, 4.91). Parker has been outstanding since May 23, allowing a 1.76 ERA in seven starts. Take away the five-run fifth inning in his June 9 outing in Arizona – his worst inning in more than a month - and the 23-year-old would have allowed just three runs in 45 innings, good for a 0.60 ERA.

In his second major league start, Parker pitched 6.2 innings against Boston to get the win. He allowed a single run on four hits. If he has shown a weakness in his rookie season, it's his susceptibility to walking hitters. Per nine innings, he has walked 4.40 hitters with the A's so far.

Control is usually the last thing to return to a pitcher after undergoing Tommy John surgery, as Parker did in 2010. As time goes on and he's able to get more innings under his belt, look for his walk numbers to take a dip.

Matsuzaka might be considered a disappointment since his 18-win year in 2008. His three seasons since have been far from spectacular. He has a 5.02 ERA with 133 walks in 48 starts. The Japanese import has become notorious for working deep into counts and having to pitch from behind.

In his fifth major league start since undergoing Tommy John surgery, Matsuzaka will look to build upon a relatively solid outing in Toronto back on June 26 with an extra day's rest. He allowed one run on six hits with five strikeouts in Boston's 5-1 over the Blue Jays. Matsuzaka has fared considerably better on the road than at home in his career. His 3.79 ERA is almost a run lower than his home mark of 4.75. In four starts in Oakland, he's allowed just 16 hits in 21.1 innings.

On Tuesday, Red Sox manager Bobby Valentine will look to talented lefty Jon Lester (5-5, 4.53). He will likely face Bartolo Colon (6-7, 4.22), who is eligible to return from an oblique injury that landed him on the 15-day disabled list.

Lester is another starter for Boston who pitches considerably better away from Fenway. His road ERA of 3.28 in seven starts is markedly better than his home average of 5.60. Tuesday's outing will be Lester's first start against Oakland this season. He has a 3-3 record with a 4.53 ERA against the A's in nine career starts.

The hard-throwing lefty is having a down season in his sixth year in the majors after not having an ERA above four since his rookie year. His strikeouts are down, but his FIP of 3.67 paired with his .318 BABIP indicates that he could be a victim of bad luck.

Lester has very good stuff. He works off of his low-90s fastball with a 89-MPH cutter than he uses to avoid the big part of bats to both left and right-handed hitters. He also throws a curveball and a more rarely used changeup.

If Colon makes the start on Tuesday, he will be beating the odds by returning from his oblique injury so quickly. For pitchers especially, oblique issues can last for weeks but the 15-year veteran is back after taking a little over two weeks off. It's a precarious situation for both Colon and the A's, who could regret giving Colon a start instead of allowing him extra rest with the All-Star break ahead.

To be sure, the A's aren't especially flush with starting pitching options given the health of both Colon and McCarthy. If Colon were to re-injure the oblique in his start, it's likely the A's will call upon Triple-A starter Dan Straily, who's been putting up video game numbers in the minor leagues. In his most recent outing with Triple-A Sacramento on Sunday, the hard-throwing right-hander struck out 10 in six innings, padding his strike-out totals that lead all levels of affiliated baseball.

Wednesday's final game of the series will feature A's rookie A.J. Griffin (0-0, 1.50) versus left-hander Franklin Morales (1-1, 2.59). Griffin was effective in his previous start despite getting a no-decision. In Texas against one of baseball's best lineups, he threw six shutout innings and only allowed two hits. It will be his second-straight start against a good offense and should give the A's a more clear idea of Griffin's prospects as a major league pitcher.

The right-hander isn't an especially hard thrower. But he mixes in his off-speed pitches at a relatively equal rate allowing him to do a good job keeping hitters off balance in his two major league starts. But without overpowering stuff and just a .125 BABIP in his two starts, scouting reports will begin to get more thorough as Griffin's major league sample size grows.

The key for Griffin so far has been his deception. He has hid his pitches well enough to keep hitters guessing, but he doesn't have the stuff to miss bats at a good rate. With just a 6.6 percent swing-and-miss rate, all signs point to hitters eventually catching on to any patterns that might exist.

For now, the A's like what they see from the 24-year-old and will lean on him in the rotation as long as he remains effective going forward.

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