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It's leapfrog season in the AL East

Posted by Eric Wilbur, Boston.com Staff  July 22, 2013 10:17 AM

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Boy, Adrian Gonzalez must have tucked himself in last night with a bit of a chuckle.

Albeit an entertaining game, it took 4:46, 11 innings, and 13 different pitchers for the Red Sox to emerge victorious over the Yankees, 8-7, Sunday night. Boston took two out of three from New York over the weekend, leaving the Bombers in major limbo, seven games out of first in the AL East, and now with a blow to their hopes of having Alex Rodriguez back in the lineup Monday.

Boo hoo, right?

Meanwhile, Gonzalez is probably content that his Dodgers didn't get the ESPN treatment. Too many late Sunday night games and all, you know.

In any case, these Red Sox have now been in first place since first pitch of the 2013 season, and while that’s something to champion, it very well might not be the case after this week, when the white-hot Tampa Bay Rays arrive at Fenway for a monumental four-game series.

All the Rays have done lately is win 17 of their last 19, nine of their last 10, and five straight to pull within 1½ games of the Sox. On May 1, Tampa Bay was seven games out. Now, they’re within striking distance of overtaking first from Boston for the first time this season.

Oh, and the Orioles? They’re only 3½ out of first place heading into Monday’s game at Kansas City.

It’s nothing but realistic to suggest that the Red Sox are going to relinquish their stranglehold at some point, and it’s probably going to happen for the first time this week. Over the past 30 days, the Rays, whom we always knew could pitch, have been an offensive machine, led by the likes of, yes, James Loney (.361 average over the last month), Wil Myers (four home runs, 16 runs scored), Fenway favorite Luke Scott (five home runs, 1.077 OPS), and Ryan Roberts (1.067 OPS, .733 slugging percentage).

Over the next four days, the Rays will throw Matt Moore, Roberto Hernandez, David Price, and Jeremy Hellickson the Red Sox’ way. Over the last 30 days, those four pitchers are a combined 12-3. To put that into some perspective, the Red Sox will counter with Brandon Workman, Jon Lester, Felix Doubront, and John Lackey, respectively. The Red Sox starting contingent is only 7-4 combined over the same stretch.

Taking two out of three from the Yankees is one thing to hang your cap on, taking three out of four from the Rays in order to gain some ground is a challenge the likes these Sox haven’t faced yet this season.

"I think they've pitched really well," Rays manager Joe Maddon told the Tampa Tribune. "We have not swung the bats well against them. Early in the season I thought we pitched well and did not hit, and then I think that kind of flipped around a little bit, but primarily I don't think we've really swung the bat against them."

Boston is 9-3 this season against the Rays, who are batting only .235 against the Red Sox, .144 with runners in scoring position. But the last time these two teams met was back on June 19, a 6-2 Rays win.

Since then, Tampa Bay is a remarkable 21-6.

Meanwhile, the Red Sox wait for word on when Clay Buchholz wants to pitch again, Jon Lester is a shell, Andrews Bailey and Miller are done for the season, and Mike Napoli aside, the lack of righthanded power for a lineup that plays in Fenway Park is a clear weakness. It all has most Red Sox fans satisfied, yet scratching their heads over how this team is able to sustain all along.

That likely begins to change this week. Get ready for leapfrog season, with the Red Sox, Rays, and likely, the Orioles, all vying for their chance to sit atop of things in the AL East time share. Baseball has been great and all this year, but welcome to the pennant race.

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About the Author

Eric Wilbur is a Boston.com sports columnist who is still in awe of what Dana Kiecker pulled off that one time in Toronto. He lives in the Boston area with his wife and three children. Comments and suggestions for the best Buffalo wing spots are encouraged.

Contact Eric Wilbur by e-mail or follow him on Twitter.

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