Perhaps lost in the anticipation of the upcoming series with the first-place (by a half-game) Yankees is that the Red Sox first must deal with the Tampa Bay Rays in a quick but important two-game set in St. Petersburg, Fla. beginning tomorrow night.
If it feels like a long time since the Red Sox and Rays last met, well, that's because it has been. The teams haven't seen each other since May 10, the 33d game of the season. When they renew acquaintances tomorrow night, it will be the the Sox' 105th game.
When the Rays struggled early this season, getting off to an 8-14 start, some might have relegated the defending American League champions to afterthought status in the AL East race. But with a 57-48 record, they are still lurking on the edge of the playoff race, trailing the Yankees (63-42) by six games and the Sox (62-42) by 5 1/2 in the wild-card race.
Naturally, this series is of particular importance to the Rays, and even during their earlier struggles, they were a nemesis for the Sox this season. The Rays are 6-4 against Boston, with a plus-23 run differential, outscoring them 64-41. The Rays won 2 of 3 in a season-opening three game set at Fenway beginning April 7. In the teams' next series beginning April 30, the Rays took 3 of 4, including a 13-0 shellacking of Josh Beckett in the opener. The Red Sox rebounded by taking 2 of 3 at Fenway in a three-game set beginning May 8.
The first pitching matchup of the series is an intriguing one, as well as a rematch of Game 7 of last year's ALCS. Jon Lester (9-7, 3.90 ERA) takes the mound for the Sox, coming off a so-so start July 30 against Oakland when he allowed four earned runs in 5 2/3 innings, receiving a no-decision in the Sox' 8-5 win. Until the Oakland start, Lester had been on a sustained run of excellence -- he had allowed three earned runs or fewer in his previous 10 starts dating back to May 31. He was 6-2 with a 1.83 ERA in that stretch.
He will be countered by Matt Garza (7-8, 3.69 ERA), who is building a reputation as a Red Sox killer. He is 2-0 with a 1.66 ERA in three starts against the Red Sox this season, continuing the dominance he exhibited in the ALCS, when he went 2-0 with a 1.38 ERA -- beating Lester twice -- and was named the series MVP.
In the second game, Brad Penny (7-5, 5.07 ERA) will match up against Rays rookie lefty David Price (4-4, 5.10). Penny struggled in his last start, allowing seven runs in five innings against the A's. Price, who earned the save in Game 7 against the Sox in the ALCS with an electric performance, has been much better at home (4-1, 2.67) than on the road (0-3, 8.20).
Offensively, the Rays are led by third baseman Evan Longoria (.276, 21 homers, 78 RBIs, .886 OPS), left fielder Carl Crawford (.314, 11 homers, 48 steals), and first baseman Carlos Pena (26 homers, 67 RBIs, but a meager .214 batting average). Second baseman Ben Zobrist (.301, 19 homers, 56 RBIs, .988 OPS) and shortstop Jason Bartlett (.331, 8 homers, .889 OPS) have been pleasant surprises, while DH Pat Burrell (.226, 7 homers) and center fielder B.J. Upton (.244, 7 homers) have struggled.