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The Red Sox are on the road again, heading to the site where they have more trouble than any other the past couple years, Tampa Bay. The Red Sox were 1-7 there last regular season, 2-2 in the American League Championship Series, and are 1-5 at the Dome this year, a 4-14 (.222) overall mark. The Red Sox are mercifully 3-3 at home against the Rays this season, making them 4-8 so far in this season series.
However, are the Rays bailing on the season? The Red Sox turnaround of late has pushed the Rays to a 5.5-game deficit in the Wild Card and gives the Sox a 3.5-game lead over Texas. The Rays uncharacteristically added salary this offseason when they acquired Pat Burrell, however, they are back to payroll paring with the jettison of Scott Kazmir, owner of an escalating contract over the next two years, to the Angels for a pair of prospects. The Angels are interested in Kazmir because of his success against the AL East contenders: 4-0 in four starts with no more than three runs allowed in any start against the Red Sox and Yankees, with particular success at Fenway. He is only 3-7 against the rest of the league. The Red Sox would face the Angels if the playoffs began today, so the move does bear watching for the Red Sox, but that is a story for another day.
Jon Lester (0-2, 3 GS, 15.1 IP, 14 ER, 21 H, 23 K, 5 BB vs TAM), must be a little bummed. He was bumped from his start against the Blue Jays, who he owns, to this start against the Rays, who have hammered him in two of the three outings, though he pitched well last time out against them. He will face off against Andy Sonnanstine (6-7, 6.61 ERA, 1.53 WHIP in 2009) who had one of his few good outings of the season in a win over the Red Sox. Josh Beckett (1-0, 13.0 IP, 4 ER, 8 H, 15 K, 6 BB vs TAM), draws Matt Garza (2-0, 4 GS, 28.2 IP, 6 ER, 15 H, 27 K, 8 BB vs BOS), the Red Sox killer, who has had four stellar outings against the Sox this season. Clay Buchholz (3-3, 4.38, 1.54 in 2009) and David Price (7-6, 4.63, 1.47 in 2009) meet in a match-up of two young pitchers who may be facing off many more times in the future. Price is 1-0 against the Red Sox this season, but who can forget that mastery he showed in ending the playoff run last year?
The Rays also have a good bullpen, which the Red Sox have grown to know well. J. P. Howell (16/23 SVs, 2.48 ERA, 1.09 WHIP, 10.51 K/9) handles the bulk of the closing duties as the primary, though unsteady, guy in a committee scenario. Russ Springer (1.86, 0.93, 3.72 with Rays), Jason Isringhausen (2.25, 1.38, 6.75), and Chad Bradford (2.70, 2.25, 8.10) are among the live arms the Red Sox might see.
The Rays are a formidable offense, among the leaders in runs, home runs, doubles, and triples. They also lead the majors in stolen bases by a healthy margin and do it with a high rate of success against what is a team with a weak ability to stop it. Jason Bartlett leads the team with a .337 average and has 11 home runs, six triples (tied for the team high), 25 doubles, 24 steals, 68 runs, and 58 RBI. Not bad for a nobody who was essentially a throw-in to the Garza deal when they got rid of Delmon Young.
Carl Crawford is having a vintage year with a .312 average, 55 swipes, 12 dingers, six triples, 26 doubles, 79 runs, and 60 driven in. Ben Zobrist also has six triples, but adds a bit more power with his 23 home runs, 70 RBI, 74 runs, and throws in 15 steals to go with his .288 average. Evan Longoria is hitting a bit of a sophomore slump, but is still very productive, with a .267 average, 25 homers, 90 RBI, and 75 runs. Carlos Pena is the team leader in home runs with 37, but is only hitting .218 while B. J. Upton is having a down year at .241 with only nine home runs, but does have 36 steals.
Scott Kazmir’s departure is not enough to change that this place is both an ugly and painful stop for the Red Sox. The pitchers seem to pitch best against the Red Sox, the Sox seem to have no answer to the Rays incessant running around the field, and the FieldTurf games play too fast for the Red Sox. Where is the break in this series? Sonnanstine is rarely good, but gets up for the Red Sox while Lester has had one good outing in four against them this year. Beckett is struggling these days and draws Garza who the Red Sox should just acquire since they have no other way to stop him. Buchholz cannot beat anyone but the Blue Jays it seems and Price has had the Red Sox number in his brief appearances against them so far. There really is no reason the Red Sox do not struggle again in this visit, but I think they can gut out one win.