Series Preview - Boston Red Sox at Tampa Rays

ST. PETERSBURG, FL - SEPTEMBER 02: Infielder Evan Longoria #3 of the Tampa Bay Rays signs an autograph before play against the Baltimore Orioles on September 2, 2011 at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, Florida. (Photo by Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images)

In the spirit of doing things a bit differently on Friday (one that I've already abused) I'm screwing with the Series Preview format. Why, you ask? Well, I answer, why not?

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As Marc intimated earlier today, the series that starts tonight in Tampa is as important a series for the Red Sox as they will face the rest of the season. Provided of course, they win one of the games. If they get swept then things, as they say, will get interesting. And not interesting in a sexy way. Interesting in an 'crap, this blows' way.

Setting the Stage

Boston is 6.5 games ahead of Tampa with 19 games to play. Tampa has 20 left. This series will do one of two things. It could, for all intents and purposes, eliminate the Rays from playoff contention, or it could put them up by their American Bootstraps and make next weekend's four gamer in Boston of vital import.

Cool Standings has Tampa at 2% to make the playoffs as it is, but if the Rays manage to sweep the Red Sox, that number will rise (how's that for analysis?). If the Red Sox manage to win one game, they'll keep the damage to a minimum and leave Tampa up 5.5 games on the Rays for the Wild Card with 16 and 17 games left. That would leave Tampa in a position similar to now but with three fewer games remaining on the schedule.

The Red Sox are 5-6 versus Tampa this year and have been out-scored 50-35 in the process. The two teams have four more to play against each other, with all four coming next weekend in Boston.

Hitting

As Jonah Keri said on the latest OTM Podcast, the reason the Rays are on the outer edges of the playoff picture is they haven't hit enough. Evan Longoria is a superstar (regardless of what Bill Simmons says) but he's having a (probably BABIP induced) down year. Ben Zobrist, Matt Joyce and the newishly called up Desmond Jennings are all contributing positively at the plate, but the rest of the team has been crappier than a dog's anus after a walk. Tampa's roster is composed of usable pieces and the Rays do boast a very good defensive team so it isn't like the guys who are playing have no value, but many of them don't scare you at the plate.

Over the last 12 games the Red Sox have scored either four or less runs (1-6 record) or nine or more (4-1 record). So if it's felt feast or famine to you then you're not far off. Dustin Pedroia hasn't hit in the last five games, but he isn't concerned. Neither should you be. Heads up. Laser show coming.

Pitching

John Lackey will start the first game against Wade Davis. John Lackey has been, well, *sigh* John Lackey. At times he looks better than competent. At others he makes you want to insert a fork into the light socket. After a brief period below the 6 run level, Lackey's ERA has, forgive the term, resurfaced at 6.11. Davis has been serviceable, which is to say a step or so better than Lackey.

Jeremy Hellickson goes for the Rays in Game 2. Hellickson has been highly effective over his last three starts (2.05 ERA in 22 innings) even if he hasn't achieved the results he'd have liked (1-2 record). Hellickson is on the shortlist for AL Rookie of the Year, for whatever that's worth (nothing, really).

The Red Sox are sending Scott Kyle Weiland to the mound against Hellickson. No matter what you think of Kyle Weiland, he is unlikely to out-pitch Hellickson. Thus it wouldn't be unreasonable to think preventing the series sweep will fall on Jon Lester's capable shoulders.

Lester was extreme-crazy-mega-lights-out-in-your-face last time out so you could mark the last game of the series down as a Red Sox win now except for the fact that the Rays are throwing James Shields. Shields has [looks at notes] 218 complete games this season. Shields has accumulated 4.8 fWAR this season which is 1.3 more than Lester, meaning that Shields is absolutely a better pitcher and nobody better argue differently.

Overall

This series is a chance for the Red Sox to pin the tail on the Rays coffin, to mangle two phrases. Yes, that makes little sense, and yes, I like it anyway. Winning two of three would both help the Sox keep pace with New York in the divisional (uses fingers to make quotes sign) "race" and effectively end the Rays playoff hopes. A sweep would likely push the Sox up a game or two in the AL East as well. Winning one game will help keep the numbers in the Sox favor, Wild Card wise. Getting swept is right out.

Here's to not losing too much!

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