THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

Suddenly the heat is upon the Sox

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By Tony Massarotti
Globe Staff / August 4, 2009

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Say goodbye to the Orioles, to the Royals, to the Nationals and to the A’s. The baseball season begins in earnest tonight in steamy St. Petersburg, Fla., where the Red Sox will open a two-game miniseries against the Tampa Bay Rays at Tropicana Field. After that, it’s on to the Bronx for four games against the first-place Yankees, out of the juicebox and into the sweatbox.

Time is dwindling.

Do you know where your Red Sox are?

A team in apparent disarray as recently as last week, the Red Sox are on a four-game winning streak as they enter the most critical week of their season. Though the Sox have slightly more than one-third of their season remaining, they will play the Rays (eight games) and the Yankees (10) a combined 18 times between now and Sept. 27. Of Boston, New York and Tampa Bay, at least one of those clubs will be absent from the postseason come October, and there is the ever-increasing possibility that two of those teams will be without a seat when the music stops.

Think of it: While the Red Sox, Yankees, and Rays will be beating up on one another, the overachieving Texas Rangers (2 1/2 games behind the Sox in the wild-card race entering last night’s action) will be frolicking about in the far less demanding American League West. From here on out, the Red Sox need to win, and they need to win against good competition.

As for this week, in particular, Boston’s pitching lines up about as well as it could have. With Jon Lester scheduled to pitch the bookend affairs against the Rays (tonight) and Yankees (Sunday), the Sox will get three starts combined from Lester and Josh Beckett. (Four would have been impossible because the Sox never work their starters on short rest.) The remaining three will go to, in order, Brad Penny (tomorrow night), John Smoltz (Thursday), and Clay Buchholz (Saturday), and there is sufficient reason to worry about each based on the particular matchup.

Lest anyone forget, Penny was the starter in a 5-3 Tampa win May 3, when the Rays stole six bases against him, eight overall. Playing the role of Usain Bolt, Carl Crawford alone swiped a half-dozen. Base runners are a mind-bending 18 of 19 in steal attempts against Penny, a fact Tampa is almost certain to exploit. The Rays currently lead the major leagues (by far) with 143 steals, and they have stolen more bases against the Red Sox (22 in 25 attempts) than they have against anyone else.

And so, tomorrow, the team with the most stolen bases in baseball (the Rays) will face the team that has allowed the most steals (the Red Sox, 103) with a man on the mound (Penny) who will be all but waving a green flag.

Gentlemen, start your engines.

As for Smoltz and Buchholz, they will be paired against their own form of Kryptonite, specifically in the form of lefthanded power. For all the debate and discussion about what has ailed Smoltz, the numbers tell a gruesome story. Lefthanded batters are hitting an eye-popping .397 against him with a .654 slugging percentage and 1.094 OPS, which doesn’t inspire confidence heading into Thursday night. Given the way balls have been flying out of Yankee Stadium this season - especially to right field - one can only wonder if Smoltz is running into a buzzsaw.

Consider: Of all the teams in baseball this season, the Yankees have the highest slugging percentage against righthanded pitching (.463). The only team with more homers against righthanders than the Yankees (108) is the Rangers (113), and we all saw how the Rangers fared against Smoltz at Rangers Ballpark in Arlington July 20. The Rangers homered three times in a five-run sixth inning -- two came from lefthanded batters - en route to a 6-3 win.

The good news, thankfully, is that Beckett will take the mound before Buchholz does, which should allow manager Terry Francona some much-needed rest for his bullpen. Though Buchholz has not allowed a home run to a lefthanded batter, lefties have hit .366 against him. New York is likely to run everyone from Hideki Matsui and Mark Teixeira to Melky Cabrera and Jorge Posada at the Red Sox, and we haven’t even gotten to Johnny Damon, who has a team-leading four homers against the Sox this season. (Teixeira has three and Robinson Cano has two.)

What this all means, in the end, is that unless the Sox win all three games started by Lester or Beckett, they will need to win at least one behind Penny, Smoltz, or Buchholz to go 3-3 on the final six games of a trip that began in Baltimore Friday. Sooner or later, particularly amid the continued absence of Tim Wakefield and, to a lesser extent, Daisuke Matsuzaka, the Red Sox will need someone to step up and take the pressure off their top two starters, especially at a time of year when the consequences become greater.

Truth be told, for the last seven weeks, the Red Sox have had one of the easiest schedules in baseball. During a 35-game stretch that began June 23, the Sox went 20-15 overall while playing 23 times against the Nationals, Orioles, A’s, and Royals. The Sox lost ground to both the Yankees (25-11) and the Rays (21-14). Now the teams are scheduled to go head to head in the wake of the trading deadline, which might as well serve as the starting line for the race taking place in the fiercest division in baseball.

Today, the Sox are essentially even with New York and six games ahead of Tampa.

From here on out, may the best team win.

Tony Massarotti can be reached at tmassarotti@globe.com and can be read at www.boston.com/massarotti

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