Tampa Bay (36-31) won its second division title last season with Boston (39-27) finishing seven games back in third to end a three-year streak of playoff appearances.
It’s still early, but the Red Sox are the current East leaders by 1 1/2 games on second-place New York, and 3 1/2 over the Rays.
Tampa Bay thinks that’ll change come October, and a three-game winning streak in the season series certainly isn’t hurting the team’s chances. The Rays opened this three-game set with a 4-0 win Tuesday behind a brilliant performance from James Shields(notes).
“Yes, we are the defending American League East champs and we plan on defending it, recapturing the flag again,” manager Joe Maddon said. “Don’t let anybody think anything differently.”
Beckett (5-2, 2.06 ERA), owner of the lowest qualifying ERA in the majors, may have something to say about that.
The right-hander improved to 3-1 with a 1.81 ERA in his last seven starts after limiting the Yankees to two runs and four hits over seven innings in an 8-3 road victory Thursday.
Beckett has dominated the Rays his last two meetings, going 1-0 while allowing two runs - one earned - and eight hits with 12 strikeouts in 12 innings. However, he’s 0-2 with a 4.56 ERA his last four games at Tropicana Field, but the offense has backed him with five total runs and none in the two defeats.
Generating offense against the Rays has been a problem this season for the Red Sox, who are batting .211 while getting outscored 23-7 in losing all three meetings. They were limited to five singles Tuesday after hitting .329 with 15 homers and 83 runs during a season-high nine-game winning streak.
“It’s no secret that they have a good offense. They got a lot of really professional hitters, and they know what they are doing up there,” Hellickson (7-4, 3.03) told the team’s official website. “They’ve got speed and power. They are seeing the ball well right now and scoring a lot of runs, but we’re up for the challenge.”
Hellickson will try to pitch the Rays to their seventh win in nine games as he hopes to rebound from his last outing. The rookie right-hander gave up a career-high five runs and seven hits, including two homers, in 5 2-3 innings of a 7-0 loss at Baltimore on Friday. He had won six of his seven previous starts with a 1.74 ERA.
“I’ve had to bounce back from tough starts before,” said Hellickson, who allowed two runs in 5 1-3 innings in a 16-5 win over the Red Sox on April 11 at Fenway Park.
Carl Crawford(notes) went 0 for 3 Tuesday in his first game at Tampa Bay since signing a $142 million, seven-year contract with Boston in the offseason. Crawford is hitting .324 with four homers and 17 RBIs in his last 18 games, raising his season average 31 points to .243.