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Odds evening out in an odd AL East

Posted by Tony Massarotti, Globe Staff  June 28, 2010 11:56 AM

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In five short weeks, the American League East has flipped its lid. The Rays have fallen. The Red Sox have risen. And additional change is hovering in the air with more than a hint of inevitability.

This race isn’t even half over yet, but it already feels like a fight to the finish.

While continuing to take more hits than a punch-drunk Tex Cobb, the Red Sox nonetheless defeated the San Francisco Giants by a 5-1 score yesterday to complete their latest cakewalk through interleague play. Meanwhile, in Tampa, the Rays tumbled to a 2-1 loss to the Arizona Diamondbacks that featured a dugout confrontation between third baseman Evan Longoria and center fielder B.J. Upton, the former calling out the latter for loafing after a ball in the gap.

"It's a byproduct of a frustrated team," Longoria told reporters after the Rays fell a game behind the Red Sox. "We're trying to win games and guys are going to have differences of opinion. I just wanted to know what was going through his head. The bottom line, we've talked about it and it goes no further than today."

So he says.

In the interim, the Sox and Rays are due to open a two-game series tomorrow night at Fenway Park during a season in which the identities of these already have flipped.

Precisely 35 days ago, the Red Sox showed up at Tropicana Field in Tampa for the opener of a three-game series with relatively modest goals. The Sox were 24-21 and the Rays were 32-12, the gap between them resting at precisely 8-1/2 games, nine in the loss column. The Yankees, too, were six games behind Tampa. While many wondered whether Tampa was running away from the pack in the American League East, some (ahem) even suggested the Sox at least temporarily write off the division and set their sights exclusively on the Yankees.

Of course, a funny thing happened on the way to a blowout. The Red Sox righted the ship and the Rays went into a flat spin. Beginning with a three-game sweep of the Rays in Tampa, the Sox have gone 22-11 while Tampa has gone 12-19. Now the Rays are fighting amongst themselves while the Red Sox are winning with Scott Atchison, Daniel Nava, Darnell McDondald and Billy Hall, the Sox undeterred by matchups against everyone from Ubaldo Jimenez to Tim Lincecum.

Do these look anything even remotely like the same teams who played five weeks ago?

And if their fortunes can change this dramatically once, isn’t it reasonable to assume they can all change again?

Now wearing the look of the more desperate team, the Rays may be catching the Sox at the right time. Already with Josh Beckett, Jacoby Ellsbury and Jeremy Hermida (among others) on the disabled list, the Sox lost Dustin Pedroia, Victor Martinez and Clay Buchholz to injuries over the weekend. The Sox have today off following the weekend series in San Francisco, but they’ll still be jet lagged when they take the field at Fenway for the series opener tomorrow night.

The Rays, for their part, will be playing with great deal at stake. As it is, plenty of eyes will be on them in the wake of the dugout dustup between Longoria and Upton. Tampa has invested a great deal into this season and tensions are obviously high. If the Rays were to come in here and lose both games to fall three behind the Sox and as many as five behind the Yankees, questions undoubtedly will abound in Tampa regarding the future of free-agents-to-be Carl Crawford and Carlos Pena, among others.

The Rays are the ones whose season seems to be disintegrating now. And we are all likely to learn a great deal more about Tampa’s character (or lack thereof) by how the Rays respond over the next two days.

As for the Sox, they have 11 games remaining before the All-Star break, including five with the Rays, three with the Orioles and three with the Blue Jays. Now would be a terrible time for them to give back any of the ground they have so inspiringly reclaimed in the division. Nonetheless, one can’t help but wonder if the Sox are reaching the point where they simply do not have enough manpower, particularly during a season in which they already have received contributions from relative unknowns. As commendable as the performance of men like Nava and McDonald has been, logic suggests that the odds will catch up with the Sox eventually.

After all, they caught up with the Tampa Bay Rays.

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Updated: Mar 1, 07:24 AM

About Mazz

Tony Massarotti is a Globe sportswriter and has been writing about sports in Boston for the last 19 years. A lifelong Bostonian, Massarotti graduated from Waltham High School and Tufts University. He was voted the Massachusetts Sportswriter of the Year by his peers in 2000 and 2008 and has been a finalist for the award on several other occasions. This blog won a 2008 EPpy award for "Best Sports Blog".

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