Now that Manny-gate is over, we can focus again on the upcoming series. It looks to be quite the doozy.
Red Sox fans are viewing this series as their final shot at contention and they're right: this series has the potential to either push the Sox back into contention or knock them out of the race for good. The Red Sox are 5.5 games back from the Rays right now, so their only shot is a series sweep, which would put them 2.5 games back. A series victory by the Rays, though, would push the Sox back to at least 6.5 games out of the Wild Card. Sure, the Sox and Rays face again in mid-September, but a 6.5 game lead would be nigh insurmountable at this stage of the season.
The Sox aren't going to go down without a fight, though. They moved Jon Lester's (3.24 FIP) start back so that he could face the Rays this series, and they're throwing two other darn good starters this weekend in Buchholz (3.61 FIP) and Lackey (4.00 FIP). Lackey started off the season on a bad note, but he's been throwing well recently (3.28 FIP in August, including a 10 strikeout game in his last start). They're going to be a tough trio to beat, but the Rays are throwing their three best starters, making for an exciting pitching match-up every day.
The Rays are in a great position right now. Even a series sweep by Boston wouldn't be the end of the world, but it would make me start sweating a lot more. If Price, Garza, and Shields can pitch well against a depleted Red Sox line-up (no Pedroia, Youkilis, Cameron, or Ellsbury), the Rays will have a great shot to knock the final nails in the Sox's coffin.
If you're looking for another fun preview of the series, check out what Jason Collette had to say over at NESN.