The Red Sox go for their eighth win in nine games and seek to continue dominating the Devil Rays when the teams play the middle contest of their three-game series Saturday night.
Boston (63-40) owns the best record in baseball, but its lead over the New York Yankees in the East has shrunk from 14 1/2 games in late May to the current eight games. New York has surged to a 12-5 record since the All-Star break.
The Red Sox, however, have the benefit of facing the last-place Devil Rays (38-64) 18 times after the start of July. Boston has outscored Tampa Bay 33-11 while taking the first four of those meetings, including a 7-1 rout at Tropicana Field on Friday night.
Kevin Youkilis hit a three-run homer to snap an 0-for-11 drought and Coco Crisp added a two-run double for the Red Sox, who are averaging more than seven runs per game and batting .380 (30-for-79) with runners in scoring position during their 7-1 stretch.
Boston will look to keep the hot hitting going in support of Jon Lester (1-0, 3.00 ERA), who makes his second start since returning from a battle with cancer.
The 23-year-old left-hander was diagnosed with the disease in August and declared cancer-free in December after undergoing six chemotherapy sessions, although he still needs to have periodic checkups.
“I’m just trying to put it behind me and move on and just go back to pitching and not worry about things,” Lester said. “But right now every three months I have to go back and get that reality check. Hopefully we can put it behind us and just win some games.”
Lester did just that in his season debut Monday night at Cleveland, limiting the Indians to two runs over six innings in Boston’s 6-2 victory. He walked three, struck out six and threw 55 of his 96 pitches for strikes.
“It was supposed to be his night,” Red Sox manager Terry Francona said of Lester, who has never faced the Devil Rays. “He just really competes.”
James Shields (8-6, 4.44) appeared to be emerging as Tampa Bay’s ace earlier this season, compiling a 6-0 record and 3.04 ERA through his first 13 starts. He’s stumbled badly since, though, going 2-6 with a 7.26 ERA in eight outings since June 15.
On Sunday, the right-hander gave up a career-high 10 runs, 10 hits and four walks in a season-low 3 1-3 innings to suffer a 21-4 loss to the Yankees.
“It’s embarrassing. It’s absolutely embarrassing,” Shields said.
Shields went 0-1 in two starts against the Red Sox last season, posting a 6.10 ERA and giving up four homers over 10 1-3 innings.
Monday’s defeat was the seventh straight for the Devil Rays, who dropped 11 in a row from June 25-July 5, are 5-24 since the start of that skid and appear on the way to their ninth last-place finish in 10 seasons.
Tampa Bay has been outscored 71-21 during its losing streak.