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Series Preview: Boston Red Sox vs. Tampa Bay Rays

BOSTON, MA - JUNE 5: Adrian Gonzalez #28, Carl Crawford #13, and Daniel Bard #51 of the Boston Red Sox celebrate defeating the Oakland Athletics, 6-3, at Fenway Park on June 5, 2011 in Boston, Massachusetts. (Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images)
BOSTON, MA - JUNE 5: Adrian Gonzalez #28, Carl Crawford #13, and Daniel Bard #51 of the Boston Red Sox celebrate defeating the Oakland Athletics, 6-3, at Fenway Park on June 5, 2011 in Boston, Massachusetts. (Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images)
Getty Images

Tuesday, 7:10 PM: Tim Wakefield (4.88 FIP) vs. James Shields (3.50 FIP)
Wednesday, 7:10 PM: Josh Beckett (3.13 FIP) vs. Jeremy Hellickson (4.03 FIP)
Thursday, 7:10 PM: Clay Buchholz (4.38 FIP) vs. David Price (2.92 FIP)

There's no getting around it: this is going to be a tough series. The Red Sox have put their early season slump behind them and are playing like the powerhouse that they looked like on paper in the preseason. They have won their last nine games in a row and they have a comfortable 2.5 game lead over the Yankees for first place in the AL East (4.5 games over the Rays).

In a year when offense is down around the majors, the Red Sox are proving to be the exception to the rule; their .353 team wOBA is the highest in the majors (19% better than league average), and higher than last season's major-league leading offense (Yankees, .347 wOBA). Thankfully, the Rays have managed their rotation so their three best starters will be facing the Sox in this series; considering the Rays' offense isn't anywhere near on the same level as the Sox (.313 team wOBA), the Rays have to trust to their pitching and defense being strong enough to keep the games close.

As sternfan pointed out in the comments this morning, this series marks the beginning of a really difficult stretch for the Rays. They have to face the Yankees and Red Sox in 32 of their remaining 96 games (33%), and that number is even higher over the next month; they face the Yanks or Sox 14 times in their next 33 games (42%). In other words, by the time we reach a week before the trading deadline, the Rays should have a very good idea on if they're still in the playoff race or not. At the very least, they can't lose any more ground in the division by that time if they want to have a realistic shot at making a run at the playoffs.

And so it begins. The Rays have the pitching edge in this series -- will they take advantage?