The first two games of this Rays-Red Sox series at Fenway Park have brought to light two early-season trends: Boston's starting pitching has been lights-out, and Tampa Bay is experiencing some all-too-familiar trouble at the plate.
Jon Lester got the Red Sox off to a strong start Saturday, Clay Buchholz was nearly unhittable Sunday and the Rays managed to cobble together just one run in two days. Right-hander Ryan Dempster will try to keep the Sox rolling Monday morning, when Boston will celebrate both Patriots' Day and Jackie Robinson Day.
In 1997, under the direction of Commissioner Bud Selig, Robinson's No. 42 was retired across all of Major League Baseball in an unprecedented tribute. The Red Sox will celebrate Jackie Robinson Day by honoring the Jackie Robinson Scholars and the Jackie Robinson essay contest winners during a pregame ceremony.
Both clubs' players and on-field staff will wear No. 42.
"Without him this wouldn't be possible," Red Sox outfielder Jackie Bradley Jr. said. "He's a very special guy. His will and determination is what keeps us playing this game at such a high intensity."
Red Sox manager John Farrell thinks Dempster is up to the task of continuing to stifle the Rays, especially after the way Lester and Buchholz set the tone against Tampa Bay.
"You become accustomed to seeing quality performances, and maybe Ryan, Felix [Doubront] and Alfredo [Aceves] can see those tangible examples ahead of them and gain some information on how we're attacking hitters through watching the other two games," Farrell said. "The old adage of hitting and pitching can be contagious."
Good pitching has certainly been contagious for the Red Sox this year, as their starters have held opponents to three runs or fewer in all 11 games to start the season. On the other side of the field, poor hitting has become equally prevalent for the Rays.
After Sunday's 5-0 loss, the Rays have hit .160 (30-for-187) with only seven extra-base hits and eight runs over their last six games. They've been outscored 31-8 and have batted .071 (3-for-42) with runners in scoring position during that stretch, and they haven't hit a home run since April 6.
Buchholz carried a no-hitter into the eighth inning Sunday afternoon, stirring some belief that Tampa Bay might once again find itself on the wrong end of a no-hitter. Rays manager Joe Maddon has had some scuffling lineups in the past -- just look at last year's club -- but this year, he's already being asked in mid-April what he can do to create more offense.
"You'd like to do different things," Maddon said Sunday morning. "Like we do run on the bases, we do run and hit-and-run moments. We had so few baserunners [Saturday], you have to have enough baserunners and you have to have the right runners and the right hitters to try different things -- guys who are going to make contact. And the pitcher has to cooperate by being a strike thrower. There's different things you can do to try and encourage movement, but you have to have people out there to create movement with."
In the meantime, the Rays' pitching staff is left in the unenviable position of having to take the mound each day knowing run support will be at a premium. Right-hander Jeremy Hellickson, who will get the nod in the series finale, isn't any more concerned than usual.
"We put pressure on ourselves anyway. We've been facing some very good pitching and a lot of these bullpens are tough," Hellickson said. "To score three or four runs against these staffs is a good amount of runs. Our goal is to shut them out or [hold them to] one or two runs. We put our own pressure on ourselves."
Rays: Hellickson facing extra rest, early start
Hellickson will take the mound after a postponed game forced the Rays to shuffle their rotation, giving him an extra day of rest. He'll also have to deal with the unusual 11:05 a.m. ET first pitch by waking up around 7 a.m. -- not something that falls in line with the late sleeper's schedule.
"I don't know what else I can do," Hellickson said. "I think Spring Training and these last few days probably helped a little bit. Luckily I'm still kind of on the Spring Training schedule. But it's going to be early. ... Everybody says it looks like I'm sleeping out there anyway."
Hellickson will enter Monday's game with an 0-1 record and a 6.35 ERA after two starts, though he feels he's pitched at least somewhat better than those numbers indicate, particularly in his first start. Between that and the long wait between starts, Hellickson will be raring to go Monday no matter what time the game starts.
"I definitely am," Hellickson said. "I had an extra day this time and just ready to get back out there."
Red Sox: With Hanrahan day to day, Bailey set to close
• Joel Hanrahan has been dealing with a sore right hamstring since April 3, and Farrell said the closer will be evaluated day to day. As long as Hanrahan is unavailable, the Sox will call on Andrew Bailey in the closer's role. Farrell didn't know Sunday if the injury is serious enough to put Hanrahan on the disabled list.
"Right now, we're hopeful that's not the case," Farrell said. "That's not to speculate that it would. Our starters working deep in the game will have some effect on that. As we mentioned to Joel, we'll put our heads together and map out what's best for all involved."
• Farrell inserted Daniel Nava into Sunday's lineup between Mike Napoli and Will Middlebrooks, separating the two powerful, albeit strikeout-prone, hitters for the first time.
"It breaks the two righties up, for one. Recognizing that there's been some strikeout totals with that threesome, including Salty [Jarrod Saltalamachia], that's why you see [Stephen] Drew in the middle of Middlebrooks and Salty today," Farrell said before Sunday's game. "Just trying to spread some things out."