Daily Heat: Are Rays choking?

Tim Brown

The Daily Heat feature will post Tuesdays through Fridays for as long as pennant races are sizzling.

Technically, the Tampa Bay Rays still are in first place. Technically, the Boston Red Sox still are not.

We’re talking two-thousandths of a point, or the approximate separation between Scott Kazmir’s rear end and the Rays’ bench after his outs recorded (nine) and home runs/walks allowed (eight) ran neck and neck Monday night in the biggest start of his career.

The Rays trudged into The Trop having lost six of nine on a road trip that looked like it would be a heavy lift and was partially salvaged only by winning the last two games of their series at Fenway Park. Then, in front of fewer than 30,000 folks (apparently, historically significant series don’t register in this pocket of Florida), the Red Sox looked like they’d been there before, and the whole thing looked too, well, significant for the Rays.

Yeah, Joe Maddon’s little band of sun beams looks a bit refracted right now, one thing when Edwin Jackson clanks a couple starts, quite another when the ace, Kazmir, loses the strike zone, then a few baseballs, fails to cover first on a routine play and spends a glum fourth inning mopping the experience from his brow.

The Red Sox, on the other hand, are 18-8 since mid-August and have made up 4½ games in the AL East. In fact, this run to the (near) top of the division began the day after Josh Beckett was torched for eight runs in 2 1/3 innings by Toronto, and since then Beckett, in 11 innings, has struck out 14, walked two and allowed one run. He goes tonight against the Rays in a rematch with Andy Sonnanstine. Six days ago, Beckett and Sonnanstine opposed each other in a game at Fenway that went into extra innings tied at one; the Rays won in 14.

Since going Manny-less, the Red Sox are 28-13 and scoring better than six runs a game, suggesting Manny’s value as an empty locker is at least as great as it is in the Dodgers’ three hole.

The way things look, the Red Sox and Rays will play their final dozen games for postseason seedings and home-field preferences, or a chance to duck the Angels in the division series. That’s probably more critical for the Red Sox, who, despite nine consecutive wins against the Angels in October (six this century), are 1-8 against them this regular season. The Rays beat the Angels six times in nine games. And, really, wouldn’t it be enough if the Rays won 90-some games and hung some bunting from the catwalks in October?

Spoiler alert: The Braves (my World Series pick) have been banged up and lousy (not that I’m bitter), but they’ll still have an impact in NL division and wild-card races. In their remaining 12 games, six are against the Phillies, and three each are against the Mets and Astros. First up, the Phillies and old-timer Jamie Moyer, who hasn’t lost in six weeks (the offense bailed him out once, on Aug. 26, when Pedro Martinez unraveled and the Mets’ bullpen did its usual number). He’s got the Braves tonight, however, and that’s usually meant a short, loud night for him. Moyer is 3-8 with a 5.29 ERA lifetime against them. On the bright side, he won’t be pitching at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium, where his ERA was more than 10. The Phillies do owe the Braves a warm man hug; they’ve won 10 of 12 games in the season series.

Mets bullpen moment of the day: Duaner Sanchez threw Elijah Dukes a full-count spinner in the seventh inning. It, uh, hovered about thigh-high for Dukes, who hit it into the left-field bleachers for a three-run home run and a 7-1 Nationals lead. Bullpen ERA for September: 3.58.

Power to no fields: Manny Ramirez did not hit a home run for the Dodgers in Pittsburgh last night, but Juan Pierre did. That was 1,162 plate appearances (and two years) between homers for Pierre. Ramirez, who hit three in August using Pierre as a bat, has gone 18 plate appearances without one. Pierre has 13 career home runs, and still runs ‘em hard. “With my luck,” he told reporters in Pittsburgh, “a bird would’ve come out and hit it or something.” Chances are, an albatross.

The Dodgers tonight go with Derek Lowe, who, in his past seven starts has allowed eight runs in 47 innings and lost once.

Welcome back: What the White Sox could really use is their old bullpen back (Bobby Jenks and Octavio Dotel have been a bit ratty lately), but Paul Konerko will do. Last we saw Paulie, he was massaging his right knee on the infield grass a week ago in Chicago. A club official said Tuesday morning it was “fairly likely” Konerko would be in the lineup tonight against Andy Pettitte and the Yankees. A .224 average against lefties is among Konerko’s 2008 maladies (along with a .210 average, .306 OBP and .629 OPS on the road), but he has hit Yankees pitching well (4 for 11) in three games.

Tonight: Brewers at Cubs. Sabathia at Dempster. Sveum at Piniella. Yost at home.

Gasping again, the Brewers start over with a new race, a new manager and the first of six games – three now, three at the end – against the Cubs. They ought to get three more starts out of Sabathia.

Pretty good transition year for Dempster, a former closer. A win tonight would set a career high (16) for wins in a season. He’s allowed 10 runs in his last 20 innings and hasn’t won since Aug. 23.