Red Sox-Rays series preview

September 10, 2013 - 8:26 am

The Red Sox will look to keep up their winning ways and extend their lead over the second-place Rays as they kick off a three-game set in St. Petersburg, Fla., on Tuesday night. On Aug. 24, the Rays and the Red Sox were tied atop the AL East. The circumstances have changed since then, however, and the Rays now are looking to keep alive their hopes of a division title. On Saturday, with a Red Sox win and Rays loss, Boston moved 8½ games ahead of the struggling Rays, the largest gap between the two clubs this season. The Rays managed to capitalize on a Red Sox loss on Sunday, moving to within 7½ games, but with 19 games left on the Tampa Bay schedule (16 for the Red Sox), time is running out to make up ground. Sunday's loss was not an easy one for the Red Sox, who managed to even the score in the ninth inning off of Mariano Rivera only to lose the game in the bottom of the inning on a wild pitch from Brandon Workman that allowed Ichiro Suzuki to score. But the offensive outburst in the first three games of the series is enough to ease the pain of the tough loss. Including the 20-run explosion in the series finale with Detroit, the Red Sox scored 54 runs over the course of four games. That's the highest total in a four-game stretch for the Red Sox since 1950, and the total is 10 more than any other team has scored over the course of four games this season. "We're doing it in bulk right now," Jonny Gomes said after Saturday's 13-9 win. "Everyone is on a roll." The Red Sox will get a key member of their club back in the series opener with the Rays, when Clay Buchholz takes the mound for the first time since June 8 as the Red Sox look to win their eighth straight series. The Rays, on the other hand, have been on a cold streak, and are likely more than ready to return home to the comfortable confines of Tropicana Field after going 3-7 on a West Coast road trip. The Rays have faltered in the second half despite a 21-5 record in July, going .500 since the break and going 11-15 in August, their worst month to date. The Trop will be a sight for sore eyes for Joe Maddon's squad, which has fallen to 34-38 on the road but boasts a 44-26 record at home. "Fortunately, the season has several more weeks to go and there's plenty of time to right this thing and maybe get as hot as we've been cold," Maddon said after a loss to the Mariners on Saturday. "We just have not hit well on this side of the world." Despite the significant slide, the Rays still have a hold on a wild card spot. If the season ended today, they'd be in line for the second wild card, 2½ games behind Texas for the first slot. The Orioles and Indians are nipping at their heels, though, both 1½ games back of the second wild card spot. The Red Sox are 10-6 in the season series against the Rays and 4-2 on Tampa Bay's home turf. This series will be the final showdown between the division rivals this year, at least in the regular season. Here are the pitching matchups for the three-game set. Tuesday: Clay Buchholz (9-0, 1.71) vs. David Price (8-7,3.51) Wednesday: Ryan Dempster (8-9, 4.79) vs. Alex Cobb (8-3, 2.99) Thursday: Jake Peavy (11-5, 4.01) vs. Jeremy Hellickson (11-8, 5.04) WHO'S HOT: RED SOX '€¢ It's been exactly one month since Will Middlebrooks rejoined the major league roster, and he's shown that he belongs in the big leagues. Middlebrooks was named co-American League Player of the Week on Monday, sharing the honors with Mike Napoli. The third baseman was very deserving of the honor, leading the majors in hits (13) and total bases (26) while batting .464/.500/.929 with four home runs and a double, driving in nine runs and putting together a streak of five multi-hit games in a row. He made a huge impact in the series with the Yankees, delivering a couple key home runs, including a solo blast off of Rivera in the ninth inning of the series finale to, at that time, tie the game. When Middlebrooks was demoted after 53 major league games this season, he left a .192/.228/.389 line behind. He's managed to pull that up to a respectable .245/.293/.459 by hitting .368 with a 1.055 OPS in his last 26 games since being recalled Aug. 10. He's cut down on the strikeouts, seen his walk rate jump and altered his plate approach for the better. '€¢ The other half of the duo of Red Sox sharing Player of the Week honors, Napoli also had himself an outstanding series. Like Middlebrooks, Napoli drove in nine runs and clubbed four home runs in the past week, while he also led the majors in OBP with a .577 mark. The first baseman went 7-for-13 in the series with the Yankees, starting all but one of the games. Napoli snapped back to the form he was in back in April, driving the ball and bringing in runs. He's driven in 15 runs in his last 12 games and 49 plate appearances, hitting .366 in that span. Napoli also has seen his walk and strikeout numbers even out a bit. Over the course of the season, Napoli has struck out once in every 2.7 plate appearances, but in his last 17 games, he's cut that number down to one strikeout in every 4.6 plate appearances. In that stretch, he's also managed to work nine walks, which equals out to a 14 percent rate, compared to his season rate of 11 percent. '€¢ Since being called up from Pawtucket and making his major league debut, top prospect Xander Bogaerts hasn't struggled. Nor has he hit at a torrid pace. He's done an admirable job of hitting big league pitching for the first time, and he's played solid defense both at third base and shortstop. But Saturday's hit parade was somewhat of a showcase for Bogaerts, who mashed his first career home run, a long drive to left-center that traveled an estimated 443 feet, making it the second-longest dinger hit at Yankee Stadium this season. Bogaerts finished the day 2-for-4 with a double in addition to his home run, along with three RBIs and two runs scored. Through his first 10 major league games and 25 plate appearances, Bogaerts, the youngest player in the American League, has hit .333/.360/.500 with a double, home run, four RBIs and a walk while striking out three times. WHO'S HOT: RAYS '€¢ Ben Zobrist has been one of the more consistent forces in Tampa Bay's lineup this season, and he has been surging over the past couple of weeks. Zobrist, the multi-talented defender who plays all over the diamond for the Rays, hit .347/.448/.490 with eight walks and only six strikeouts over his last 13 games with four doubles and a home run. Four of Zobrist's last seven games have been multi-hit efforts. Zobrist's only issue is his power outage lately; although he's hit exactly 20 home runs in each of the last two years, he looks destined to come up short in 2013 with only 11 through 137 games and one home run in his last 71 plate appearances. Zobrist is batting .278/.360/.416 on the season with 34 doubles, while drawing 64 walks compared to 83 strikeouts. '€¢ One-time Sox first baseman James Loney has been swinging a hot bat, hitting .341/.420/.477 in his last 12 contests. Like the rest of the Rays, Loney had a relatively quiet month of August after putting up impressive offensive numbers throughout the first half, but he's rebounded quite nicely through his first eight games in September. Loney has been a pleasant surprise at the plate for the Rays and is enjoying one of his better offensive seasons, batting .306/.359/.432 with 11 home runs and 63 RBIs through 137 games. '€¢ Things have been going pretty smoothly for Fernando Rodney since his disastrous four-run, four-hit third of an inning on Aug. 9 against the Dodgers. The closer has allowed just one earned run in his last 11 innings (0.82 ERA) while striking out more batters (12) than he's allowed baserunners (five hits, three walks). He blew his eighth save of the season on the long West Coast road trip, but also recorded his 33rd save of the season. Obviously, Rodney hasn't put up numbers anywhere close to his historic 2012 season in which he posted an unbelievable 0.60 ERA. This year, his ERA sits at 3.59 through 57 2/3 innings, but he's already matched his strikeout total from last season with 76. WHO'S NOT: RED SOX '€¢ Felix Doubront is back in the habit of running up his pitch count early in the game and lasting only a few innings. In his last six starts, four of them have been only four innings or less, while he made it through only 3 2/3 innings in his previous two. His last start was one of his worst of the season, in which he allowed six runs on three hits and tied his season high with six walks. Since Doubront's streak of giving up three earned runs or less in 16 straight starts came to an end, he's posted a 6.58 ERA with 11 walks and 20 strikeouts in his last five starts. He's also had some trouble keeping the ball in the park; in his last 26 innings, Doubront has given up four long balls, as opposed to only three in his previous 13 starts. With Buchholz returning, the Red Sox will skip Doubront's next turn in the rotation in an attempt to give him some more rest. He won't pitch in a relief role, nor is he needed in the bullpen with the plentitude of left-handed relievers currently on the roster. '€¢ When looking at his numbers, it doesn't seem like Junichi Tazawa has been going through some tumultuous stretches. But Tazawa, who undoubtedly has great stuff and boasts an outstanding 6.09 strikeout-to-walk ratio, has struggled at inopportune times this season. Though he tossed a shutout inning on Saturday against the Yankees, two nights before he blew the save in the seventh inning, allowing two runs on three hits in his two-thirds of an inning. It was the righty's eighth blown save of the season. In his last 11 outings (8 2/3 innings) he's allowed 11 hits and three walks, posting a 5.19 ERA while the opposition is hitting .306/.350/.472 against him. Overall on the year, Tazawa has been dominant at times and shaky at others, but still has compiled a 2.92 ERA and 1.181 WHIP through 62 2/3 innings, a new career high for him as far as his major league experience goes, but still less than the 86 1/3 innings he threw between the majors and Triple-A last season. '€¢ The Red Sox got some bad news over the weekend when it was determined that Jacoby Ellsbury has a compression fracture in his right foot. The timetable for Ellsbury's return is not the worst-case scenario; Dustin Pedroia missed 87 games after breaking the same bone in his foot in 2010. Manager John Farrell seemed optimistic that Ellsbury will return this season, and perhaps even before the end of regular-season play. Regardless, Ellsbury will be in a walking boot for five days and will be reevaluated after receiving treatment. Losing Ellsbury is huge for the Sox; not only do they lose a superb center fielder, but also a catalyst at the top of the lineup. WHO'S NOT: RAYS '€¢ Desmond Jennings has been dealing with an ugly slump, collecting only two hits in his last 16 at-bats, though he has managed to draw five walks. On the plus side for Jennings, one of those two hits was a home run while the other was a double. But the outfielder's slump extends much further than his last few games. Jennings is batting just .154 (albeit with a .323 OBP) since Aug. 21 with just eight hits in 65 plate appearances. He's driven in just three runs in his last 29 games. The prolonged cold stretch has caused Jennings' line to fall to .246/327/.398 on the year, though he has been drawing more walks and striking out less than he was earlier in the season. '€¢ It's been an up-and-down year for Kelly Johnson, who has swung the bat well at times but failed to string together hits at others. He's currently dealing with a prolonged decline in productivity, batting .148 with one extra-base hit in his last 12 games. The slump extends back more than a month; since the beginning of August, Johnson is hitting just .207/.270/.276 with three RBIs. Johnson has put up a .246/.314/.432 line in 108 games this season for the Rays. '€¢ Yunel Escobar has not gotten off to a good start in the month of September, going 4-for-25 in his last eight games and hitting .156/.206/.281 during the West Coast road trip. The shortstop received his first day off since July 21 in the series finale with the Mariners on Sunday but made a pinch-hit appearance later in the game. Escobar is hitting .260/.328/.370 on the year with 23 doubles and nine home runs, driving in 53 runs.