The Tampa Bay Rays and Boston Red Sox have been battling it out all season. Last year, the Red Sox tied for baseball’s best record and the Rays finished with baseball’s worst record. But it’s 2008 and now the two teams are battling for supremacy of the vaunted AL East. Their final series of the season begins today in Sunny St. Petersburg, where the Rays not only have baseball’s best home record at 53-21 but also have swept the Red Sox both previous series at Tropicana Field for a 6-0 record at home against the reigning AL East Division as well as World Champs.
After last week’s match up at Fenway which included the first road victories in this season long rivalry by the Rays – both in dramatic and heart-stopping fashion – the Red Sox look to turn the tables on not just the series, but also the standings. The Red Sox come into the series with just a slim one game behind for first place. Plus, just a few days ago, the Red Sox won a coin flip in case a tie breaker is needed for playoff seedings or a home field advantage in a one game playoff.
Despite all the speculation about poor attendance at their home park - although it is up dramatically over the previous several seasons - each game of the series is expected to be a near sell-out at Tropicana Field. The Rays are 18-1 this season with home crowds over 30,000 in attendance. Their only loss with a full house came in their home opener in April, as they have won 18 straight games since with a big crowd at the Trop.
Needless to say, but I’ll say it anyway – this series is HUGE, for both teams.
The Red Sox need to sweep the series to leave town with first place in the division to themselves, not just to capture first place but also to send a message to the Rays in case the two bitter rivals meet down the road in October.
If the Rays sweep the series, it would give them a four game lead in the division and virtually slam the door on the AL East crown with 10 games remaining. More importantly, another Rays sweep of Boston at the Trop would not only demoralize the defending champs but would serve notice to all contenders that they are in trouble facing the Rays in the postseason. The Rays have also swept the Angels and handily took 3 of 4 against the White Sox at the Slantdome. The Chicago Cubs also got swept there in interleague play.
A Rays sweep would also tighten the gap between the Sox and Twins and White Sox, who are not only battling it out for their division crown but could sneak into the Wild Card discussion should one of the AL East teams stumble heavily.
If the series is a 2-1 split, we’re going to have as many questions to answer as we do now. Heading into the last three series of the season, it appears the Red Sox would have a slight advantage since they have more home games (4 vs. Cleveland Indians, 3 vs. New York Yankees) then the Rays (3 vs. Minnesota Twins) but the Rays have easier opponents in general as they close out their season visiting two teams who really aren’t poised to even play the spoiler role (3 at Baltimore Orioles, 4 at Detroit Tigers) as the Red Sox get another 3 game round of those pesky Toronto Blue Jays at the Skydome this weekend.
Let’s take a closer look at the three game set:
Game 1 – Monday 7:10 EDT
LHP Scott Kazmir (11-6, 2.99) against RHP Daisuke Matsuzaka (16-2, 2.97)
Game 2 – Tuesday 7:10 EDT
RHP Andy Sonnanstine (13-7, 4.47) against RHP Josh Beckett (12-9, 4.10)
Game 3 – Wednesday 7:10 EDT
RHP Matt Garza against RHP Tim Wakefield (9-10, 3.92)
The first two games are exact re-matches of the 2nd and 3rd games of the Rays-Red Sox series at Fenway last week. Although none of the starters figured in the decisions, both games which were won by the Rays in dramatic fashion. Game 3 will pit Matt “Pitch 22” Garza, who has been downright dominant in the state of Florida this season, against Tim Wakefield and his vicious knuckler. Wakefield has always done very well at Tropicana and the Rays in general.
The Rays now have a healthy Evan Longoria back in their lineup and playing third base and should be expecting B.J. Upton to return to the lineup either Tuesday or Wednesday from his balky quadriceps injury.
The Rays whom have recieved contributions from what seems to be their entire 40-man roster all season long, will have a bolstered bullpen with recent callups Mitch Talbot and Jeff Niemann - both of whom have been outstanding with AAA Durham and last year’s #1 overall pick David Price, who made his impressive debut on Sunday against the Yankees could be available for relief on Wednesday’s series capper. The rest of the bullpen is in tune and ready to go but certainly not overworked as of late.
Closer Troy Percival has been very shaky since returning from his latest stint on the DL but he has definitely been more effective at the dome. Carl Crawford is still not expected to return for the regular season and it’s only a possibility that he would be available for the playoffs due to his hand surgery.
The Red Sox, in comparison have been enjoying better relative health than the Rays. Obviously, David Ortiz has not returned to form from his mid-season wrist surgery but is always dangerous – especially against the Rays and in Tropicana. He has hit more HR against the Rays than any opponent in Franchise history and also leads all visitors with HR hit at Tropicana Field.
The Red Sox have had key players lose some time to the DL this season – including Mike Lowell and Josh Beckett as well as Big Papi. Certainly, this is the time of year when Manager Terry Francona wishes he had a healthy and battle-tested Curt Schilling but he won’t return until next season and who knows if this is the end of the road for the big righty. But all-in-all, the Sox look raring to go and will get their hands full with the Rays in what looks to be the most important series of the season in the always tough AL East.