The Tampa Bay Rays felt great after a three-game weekend sweep of the Boston Red Sox cut their wild-card deficit to 3 1/2 games, but were left shaking their heads after blowing a chance to pull closer this week.
Fortunately for Tampa Bay, it’s about to get another shot.
Four games behind the wild-card leading Red Sox with 14 to play, the Rays will pull even if they can complete a four-game sweep at Fenway Park as this critical series gets underway Thursday night.
It seemed like either Boston (86-62) or New York would run away with the wild card, but after those two clubs paced the AL all season, the Red Sox have come back to the pack.
Tampa Bay (82-66) went from 6 1/2 behind Boston to 3 1/2 back after last weekend’s impressive sweep, but it heads to Fenway lamenting some missed opportunities in Baltimore. After winning Monday’s opener and pulling within three, the Rays fell four back with Tuesday’s 4-2 loss and a Red Sox win.
They had a chance to get that game back Wednesday after Boston fell 5-4 to Toronto, but could only muster three hits in a 6-2 loss to the Orioles.
“This is typical of what’s happened to us this year, where we’ve played good baseball, but our offense kind of goes away, and we just can’t have that happen right now,” manager Joe Maddon told the Rays’ official website. “It’s just happened way too often this year. We definitely missed an opportunity.”
Another one presents itself Thursday, and if anything, the Red Sox - 5-9 against the Rays - should be the ones who are nervous. Tampa Bay has held Boston’s powerful lineup to a surreal-looking .177 average - the Red Sox are hitting .290 against the rest of the majors - and 43 runs in 14 games.
The Rays have won four of five at Fenway this season, and were the last visitor to pull off a four-game sweep there - April 16-19, 2010.
“Oh, it’s going to be raucous. Total playoff situation,” Maddon said. “Please, they can’t deny that either. Listen, I admit it. I think it’s great. It really should bring out the best in everybody.”
The Red Sox, already with a beat-up pitching staff, have some additional injury concerns with their two biggest sluggers. David Ortiz(notes) missed the two-game set against the Blue Jays with back spasms and is day-to-day, while first baseman Adrian Gonzalez(notes) left Wednesday’s game with a tight calf.
Gonzalez expects to play Thursday.
“We’ve just got to find a way this next series to go out there and play good baseball,” said Gonzalez, who’s hitting .163 against Tampa Bay this season. “Splitting the series, winning three out of four or sweeping them, that’s what we need to do.”
The Rays probably need to at least win three of four to have a realistic shot at catching Boston, and they should have a decided edge on the mound in the opener, a rematch of their 6-5, 11-inning win Saturday.
Kyle Weiland(notes) (0-1, 6.75 ERA) gave up six hits, three walks and three runs while lasting just four innings in that start, and with Erik Bedard(notes) hurting and left-hander Andrew Miller(notes) struggling, the rookie will get the call again Thursday.
“I just think that the other day down in (St. Petersburg), that was pretty tough circumstances for him,” manager Terry Francona told the Red Sox’s official website. “It could have gone way against him, and he got through his first inning. We just think he can rise to the occasion and give us a chance to win.”
Jeremy Hellickson(notes) (12-10, 2.96) counters for the Rays after giving up three runs over six innings Saturday, two of which came on a homer by Gonzalez. That was his worst outing in his last five, a stretch in which he’s posted a 2.00 ERA.
Hellickson is 1-1 with a 3.93 ERA in three starts versus Boston this season.