The Red Sox' season has 2 major blemishes on it. Going 3-5 against the Yankees—not good. Losing series to the Twins and Tigers—not good. But it's the sweeps that have really killed us. First, by the Baltimore Orioles, who we should not have lost a series to, much less been swept. And then the crushing 4-gamer to the Tampa Bay Rays. 2 blowouts and 2 close losses including an overtime defeat where the Sox failed to score a walkoff run with the bases laoded and 0 outs combined to put the Sox in a very deep hole.
Tonight, having fought back to 3 games over .500, the Red Sox will get a second chance at the Major League best Rays, who will try to knock the Sox back into their hole.
So, are the Rays as good as they appear? The short answer is "no." At the moment, the Rays pitchers have by far the highest strand rate in the majors, their batters the 6th highest BABIP, and given their more middle-of-the-road team wOBA, they're scoring a lot more runs than you might expect. They're on pace for 117 wins, and almost certainly are not that team.
Unfortunately for the Red Sox, the long answer is "no, but they're still one of the best teams in the majors." The Rays weakest link is their offense, which is ranked 12th by OPS and 11th by wOBA. Generally speaking, it's pretty average, and not lacking for luck, as the BABIP woes of Carlos Pena, Dioner Navarro, and B.J. Upton are more than counterbalanced by the about 800 plate appearances they have coming from batters with a mark over .350. Certainly Evan Longoria is every bit an offensive star, and Carlos Pena and Carl Crawford can hurt you with their own specialties, but there's just not a lot of guys to be afraid of in this lineup. Ben Zobrist has returned to Earth after last year's festivities, and projects to drop even further, while it wouldn't make a lot of sense to credit John Jaso with the MVP numbers he's produced in his playing time. The Rays have only scored 4 fewer runs than the Yankees, but there's no reason to expect them to keep it up against us. Oh, and before I forget, they're going to run on us. A ton.
An average offense should be enough for the Rays, though, since they just don't allow any runs. But it's not all skill. A league-leading ERA of 2.87 belies a FIP of 3.78 and xFIP of 4.06. Both very solid numbers, and in fact still ranking 4th in both categories, but this is not as much a team of Cy Youngs as their runs allowed may lead observers to believe. Don't get me wrong, though—while the numbers show that the Rays pitchers have gotten luckier than any team in the league—a -.91 ERA-FIP that nearly doubles the next closest mark, a "league best" .272 BABIP, and an 80% strand rate can all attest to that—it's not just a matter of chance.
Instead, the Rays' pitchers are lucky because of what's backing them up. Give credit to Tampa for doing what the Red Sox were trying to do: putting together a very good group of starters, and putting a terrific defense behind them. Almost from top to bottom the Rays are filled with talented defenders. Evan Longoria at 3rd, Carl Crawford in left, Ben Zobrist at 2nd and in right—there's a reason why balls in play don't fall much. 4th in UZR, 4th in DRS, this defense is guaranteed to frustrate.
Let's not count the Red Sox out, though. Over their last 6 games, they've collected 5 wins against some of the best teams in the league. Their offense is still one of the best, their starting pitching is coming around, and their bullpen, if unimpressive, is rested. They have their two best starters to get the series rolling. With Mike Cameron's return set to put their full lineup back on the field for the first time in over a month, the Sox are set to give the Rays a very hard fight.