In many ways, the Rays and Red Sox have had very similar seasons so far this year. Both started out at the bottom of the barrel-the Rays were 0-6 right along with the Sox, and then 1-8 when they came to Boston to face a 2-7 Red Sox team-and both have recovered in rather remarkable fashion.
The Rays' rebound was faster, to be certain. While it took the Red Sox until May 15 to finally climb back up to .500, the Rays had amazingly accomplished that feat as early as April 24. On the other hand, the Red Sox' return to glory has been rather more...extreme so far. While the Rays briefly seized control of first place in the East around the time the Red Sox were reaching even, their hold proved tenuous. Now, as Boston sits just a half game back of the best record in the Majors, the Rays have slipped to 4.5 games back in the East.
Still, with the Sox headed into Tampa for a three-game set, all that can change in an instant. If the Sox want to keep the status quo in the east, they'll have to avoid the sweep that befell them the last time these two teams met. The good news is that the Sox are on a roll unlike anything we've yet seen this season. The bad news is that the Rays planned ahead, and the Sox will have some difficult pitching matchups to stomach.
Stylistically speaking, the Rays and Red Sox go about winning games in rather different manners. While Boston utilizes a powerhouse lineup to put up the biggest numbers in the game-they outpace the second place Yankees by 20 runs-the Rays rely on their gloves to keep runs off the board. If you want to see how a defensive team can win games, look no further than Tampa, whose .266 BABIP against might not be so much a matter of luck as of Longoria, Zobrist, and Fuld.
So far this year, those gloves have been enough to bail out a rotation that has struggled-as the Red Sox' has-once the first few guys have made their starts. Of course, as mentioned earlier, the Rays don't have to be concerned about that, because they've thought ahead. Tampa will be sending those "first few guys" to the mound in James Shields, Jeremy Hellickson, and David Price\.
The hardest opponent of the bunch is very likely to be David Price. Even with the Red Sox hitting lefties just fine this year, they certainly seem to prefer righties, and David Price is a shutdown lefty who will keep the ball in the yard well enough, leaving his fielders free to go to work. He will get the start against Clay Buchholz Thursday.
The least challenging of the bunch should be Jeremy Hellickson, which is something of a statement given the young hurler's 3.03 ERA on the season. But if there's one man of the bunch that doesn't really play into the team's strengths, it's Hellickson. A somewhat high walk rate and some big fly ball nubmers just scream "unsustainable." Combine that with some mediocre lefty splits, and the middle of the Sox' rotation could be nightmare territory for Hellickson. With Josh Beckett on the mound, this seems like the most winnable game of the bunch.
Finally, there's James Shields, who will take the mound tonight against Tim Wakefield. A reverse-splits righty, Shield's biggest question mark likely comes from his occasional vulnerability to the long ball. The Red Sox will have to hope for a big game from their knuckleballer if they want to extend their winning streak to double digits.
If you're looking for an X-factor in all this for the Sox, here it is: The Sox enter Tampa with the best road record in the game at 20-13, while Tampa Bay sits at a paltry 14-16 at home. If the Sox fans invade the Trop as they are wont to do on occasion, that could make the home field (dis)advantage situation all the worse.
Will the Sox put up another 35 runs this series? It's hard to imagine, but leaving with a series win isn't too unrealistic a goal.