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The week began as the road trip continued through Tampa Bay. This season’s series with the much improved Rays continued to belong to the home teams as the Red Sox were swept in Tampa Bay for the second time this season, falling to 6-6 against the Rays and extended the losing streak to match a season-high five. The Rays pitching figured prominently in the sweep as James Shields (6.1IP, 2ER, 5H, 5K, 1BB) and Matt Garza (7IP, 1R (0ER), 1H, 3K, 0BB) set the tone early.
The Rays bullpen was locked in, throwing four scoreless innings to back up the starters, with the exception of Troy Percival‘s exciting ninth inning. He allowed two runs, including a double as a Brandon Moss fly ball hit a catwalk to keep the inning alive. The Rays received bad news as Percival injured his ankle backing up the next play and hit the disabled list for the second time this season. J.P. Howell got the last out to preserve the win and earn the save.
Justin Masterson took the loss in the first game as he allowed two home runs (B. J. Upton and Gabe Gross) among his four runs in six innings. Tim Wakefield, who has owned the Rays throughout his career, had a good outing, but was outdueled by Garza. He allowed two runs (one earned) on five hits, while striking out four and walking three in seven innings to take the tough luck loss.
Daisuke Matsuzaka outdueled Scott Kazmir in a final featuring a pair of aces, but the Sox still took the loss as Dice-K could not gain his control early and the pitches piled up. He left after only five innings and 101 pitches. He allowed one run on two hits and struck out five, but the five walks just killed him.
Hideki Okajima was on, pitching a scoreless inning, before Manny Delcarmen and Craig Hansen combined for six runs on ONE out! Meanwhile, the Red Sox got to Kazmir for four runs in his five innings, but the Rays bullpen held the fort and the Sox best chance at a win in the series slipped away.
The Red Sox bullpen has to get more consistent bridging the gap to Jonathan Papelbon if this team is to repeat. It seemed game after game last year went starter-Okajima-Papelbon-WIN. This season’s edition has seen many games where the starter, like Dice-K this week, threw way too many pitches, or the middle relief has just been blown up.
Okajima has been good this year, but nowhere near the lockdown setup man he was last season. This might be an area the Red Sox address before the July 31 trade deadline. This was a disappointing series in that the Sox could not get even one of the games. The sweep really opens up the lead for the Rays.
The Sox wrapped up the road trip in Yankee Stadium and fortunately, ended the losing streak quickly. Jon Lester, acting as a stopper in the opener, shut out the Yankees with a masterful five-hit, two-walk, eight-strikeout, complete game shutout, his second of the season (the other being the no-hitter). The Red Sox got to Andy Pettitte for two apiece in the first and second, aided by Derek Jeter‘s error. Pettitte never really found his control as he allowed nine hits and three walks on 89 pitches and could not get out of the fifth.
In the second game, Josh Beckett yielded three first inning runs, but he settled in and allowed no more before he left after six. The Red Sox tied the game with three in the third and took the lead with three more in the fifth, all off starter Darrell Rasner.
Papelbon finally saw some game action, recording the save after shaking off a little rust as he allowed a run on a Jeter double. Despite an exciting back-and-forth affair, this game will be remembered for the very odd Kevin Youkilis triple where the ball sat atop the left-center field wall briefly before falling back into the field.
The third game was a classic Red Sox-Yankees rivalry game, though the Red Sox took the loss, 2-1. Masterson allowed only two runs through his six innings and Javier Lopez and Mike Timlin each threw a scoreless inning, but they were bested by Mike Mussina‘s effort, throwing six scoreless innings. Mariano Rivera came on with a 2-0 lead and filled the bases with no one out, however, the Sox could only plate one and lost.
A footnote to the third game is the seven combined hit batsmen, including Manny Ramirez three times and Alex Rodriguez once. How a Red Sox-Yankees game sees that many players hit, especially marquee names like those, without a brawl or even ejection is amazing, considering all the bad blood in recent years.
The final game featured Joba Chamberlain‘s debut as a starter against the Red Sox, facing Wakefield. Each starter pitched well, going at least six innings and allowing three runs each. The bullpens held each offense in check, preserving a 4-4 tie into the tenth inning.
Rivera provided two solid innings of relief, coming in to hold the tie and getting pinch hitters Jason Varitek and Ramirez, among others. Papelbon could not hold the tie in the bottom of the tenth allowing a hit up the middle to rookie Brett Gardner (playing in just his seventh career game) to score Robinson Cano for the Yankees win.
On the positive side, the Sox ended their long losing streak. But, they failed to win a couple more close games. The Rays remain on fire and drop the Sox to five back (still four ahead of the Yankees, who remain very alive in the playoff chase).
The Red Sox finally return home after the tough road trip with a couple more tests in the Central’s second place Twins and the above-.500 Orioles.
Offensively, the Twins are third from the bottom in home runs, but still fifth in runs in the majors. They manage this with the third highest batting average and are near the top in steals. Ron Gardenhire, lacking a true power hitter in the lineup, has this team playing small ball: sacrificing, hitting-and-running, and taking the extra base.
Justin Morneau and Jason Kubel lead the team with 12 home runs apiece and combine for 40% of the team’s total in that category. Carlos Gomez, one of the key parts of the Johan Santana package, has a low .271 batting average for a leadoff hitter, but does have 21 steals, which is among the league leaders.
The Twins are also not statistically great as a pitching staff. However, they are seventh in the majors in quality starts and have a perfect closer in Joe Nathan, who has converted all 24 of his save opportunities.
The Red Sox send Dice-K against Scott Baker, who is arguably the Twins best starter, in Game 1. The second game features Jon Lester against Nick Blackburn, who is having a good rookie season (he did pitch in relief six times last season). Josh Beckett and Livan Hernandez, each team’s #1 starter, face off in the getaway game.
With the Rays having pulled away from the Sox a little bit, the Red Sox now lead the wild card race with the Twins hot on their trail, a half game behind. Losing the series will allow the Twins to pass them in the wild card chase as well. The Twins took two of three in an earlier series in Minnesota.
The Sox will then welcome Baltimore to Fenway for the second time this season, having taken two of three in the prior set in June, and are 5-4 on the season against the division rival. The Orioles are improved this year, staying above .500 into July. This team has some offense with Nick Markakis and Aubrey Huff providing power and Brian Roberts getting on base and stealing bases. George Sherrill has been a top notch closer, converting 27 of 32 opportunities, but the Orioles problems appear to lie with the starting pitching.
Their primary four starters are only 23-19 with only one showing an ERA below 4.00 or WHIP below 1.30 (Jeremy Guthrie‘s 3.61 and 1.22). Justin Masterson will face Brian Burress in the opener, Tim Wakefield draws Radhames Liz in the second, and the finale shapes up to be a matchup of Dice-K and Daniel Cabrera. The Sox cannot afford to lose home games to the Orioles at this point. Any losses here could turn out to be critical when looking back in September if the Sox are out of the playoffs.