Series Preview: Red Sox return to Tampa Bay

Jared Wickerham

The Rays have come to the end of the line against their most powerful AL East rival for this season. The last time these two teams met, the All-Star Break had just ended, and David Price had two opportunities to completely shut down Boston (thanks to a rain-postponed game). Over four games in Fenway, the Rays won three and took over first place of the division.

That, of course, prompted this twitter scuffle:

It's unconfirmed whether anyone informed the Red Sox that we actually play our games in St. Petersburg, but I won't tell them if you won't. I'll gladly take the forfeit when they don't show up...

Fast forward six weeks, and the Rays have slipped eight wins back in the standings, and their lead for the second Wild Card position is down to 1.5 games. The recent lapse in offense has been surprising for a team that boasted among the best offensive metrics in baseball this season, but the last two weeks have been unkind, and it's time for Tampa Bay to turn their fate around.

To get back to where they belong, the Rays will have to play past New York, Baltimore, and Texas. But first: Boston.

The Red Sox Offense

To be fair, if any team has boasted a more powerful offense than the Rays this season, it has been Boston. Twenty-run games aside, among major league teams the Red Sox are first in runs scored, on-base percentage, and slugging percentage. Their 31.2 WAR on offense is the best in the majors -- just ahead of Tampa Bay (27.3, second overall) and Baltimore (25.9, third overall) -- while their wRC+ is second at 114 (the Rays are still third at 109).

Both offenses have continued to be wildly successful, but the Red Sox slightly more so.

Still, it's been a  while since these two teams have met. Let's take a look at what's changed in Beantown:

Will Middlebrooks

Six weeks ago the Red Sox were content to start Brandon Snyder at third base. Their once heralded third base prospect was batting south of .200 with a 64 OPS+, which led to his demotion in June. While he was down, Middlebrooks changed his swing and removed his open stance to find more power, but that wasn't enough. The kid also needed to work on his mental game.

Per Tim Britton at the Providence Journal, two things were holding Middlebrooks back. First, he had not prepared properly headed into this season, as his success in 2012 had boosted his ego so much that he failed to give the offseason a proper amount of effort. That sounds right. Second, Middlebrooks needed some in-game training to develop a new skill: adjusting from pitch-to-pitch. The kid was smart enough to make adjustments game-to-game, but reaching that next level of mid-game adjustments brought him to a new level.

Confirmation bias shows that since his August re-promotion, Middlebrooks is batting .368/.434/.621 with six homeruns -- including one off Mariano Rivera -- but that should be tempered by a .419 in-play batting average. He's hot right now, and he's got plenty of power. The question is whether he can keep it up down the stretch.

Xander Bogaerts

10 games, 25 plate appearances, 333/.360/.500 batting line, and all the defense you could have asked for. He's sharing time with Stephen Drew at short stop, but Xander has the most buzz on this team. After starting last year in HIgh-A ball, his promotion has been surprising; premiering at the young age of 20 puts him in elite company.

Bogaerts got the call after the sawx shipped out Jose Iglesias, another defensive gem, to net Jake Peavy who has been everything Boston could have hoped for and more as a starter, dammit. The shortstop should get at least one start against the Rays and should be interesting to watch.

Jacoby Ellsbury

The center fielder has a compression fracture in his foot that is guaranteed to sideline him for the month of September, and maybe longer. The fracture has not been displaced, so it's possible he can return to playing action in the near future (a la broken fingers), but there's no guarantee.

Unfortunately, the Sox have the luxury of a starting center fielder playing in right: Shane Victorino. Thanks to roster expansions, Boston will also have Jackie Bradley Jr. (the spring training starlet who faded quickly), and the motley crew of Daniel Nava, Mike Carp, and Jonny Gomes. All three of the latter are power hitters with mediocre defense, but hat doesn't seem to hold the Red Sox back.

Boston will also have the speedy Quintin Berry to snag bases along the way.

***

The Red Sox are no less formidable, and the Rays have been on a slide. It seems like a monumental task to turn things around. Here's to hoping the Rays pitching can use its dominance to deflate the offense that posted 37 runs on the Yankees over their last four games.

Here's a summary of what to expect out of the Red Sox*. It uses ZiPS RoS projections and regressed platoon splits for hitters and pitchers to project a matchup expectation.

*Jackie Bradley Jr. is not included. He has a 0.309 wOBA ZiPS projection, and should be assumed to have a normal left-handed split.

If you're wondering where the pitching previews are, Ian will cover that before each game's match up:

Go Rays!

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