Rays-Red Sox Preview

BRETT HUSTON

Losing Jacoby Ellsbury to a potential long-term injury is hardly the way the Boston Red Sox wanted to begin their first series at Fenway Park, but they have a chance to conclude it feeling much better about themselves.

After a highly productive weekend at the plate, the Red Sox look for their first four-game sweep of the Tampa Bay Rays since 2006 in Monday morning's annual Patriots' Day game.

Boston (4-5) walked into Fenway on Friday with a 1-5 road record and promptly lost Ellsbury to a separated shoulder after taking a 4-1 lead in the fourth inning of the series opener, but the loss of the 2011 AL MVP runner-up hasn't hurt the lineup thus far.

The Red Sox won the series' first two games by a combined 25-7 margin, then used some extra-base hits to make it three in a row Sunday. David Ortiz continued his April tear by going 3 for 4 with two doubles while new leadoff man Mike Aviles homered for the second straight day in a 6-4 win.

"When you're playing a Tampa team that's touted to win 100 games in our division you must feel pretty good about it when you come out fighting like we did,'' manager Bobby Valentine said.

Boston last swept the Rays (4-5) in four games May 25-28, 2006, at Fenway - this is the fifth four-game set between the teams since - but should have a good chance to finish Tampa Bay off in this one if Ortiz keeps hitting. After batting .211 in the opening month over the past four seasons, Ortiz is hitting .444 thus far in 2012, and is 9 for 13 with five extra-base hits and eight RBIs in this series.

"Big Papi is locked in right now," Rays catcher Chris Gimenez told the Red Sox's official website. "Papi's locked in. We might as well walk him every time."

Ortiz will try to stay hot against James Shields (1-0, 5.54 ERA), against whom he's 15 for 46 (.326) lifetime with 12 of those hits - nine doubles and three homers - going for extra bases.

Right fielder Ryan Sweeney is 9 for 20 lifetime against Shields, including 3 for 3 with a homer in 2011.

Shields gave up six runs over five innings in his opening-day start against the Yankees, but bounced back by holding the potent Tigers to two runs over eight in a 4-2 win Wednesday.

Now, he'll take the mound at Fenway, where he's 1-9 with a 6.75 ERA in 10 starts.

"If I just execute my pitches and try to get the first out of every inning, I'll be good," Shields told the Rays' official website. "If you can get ahead of these guys and really be methodical with your pitches and put guys away early, I think you're going to be successful."

The Red Sox will give the ball to Daniel Bard (0-1, 9.00) hoping his second major league start goes a bit better than his first. The right-hander gave up five runs and eight hits over five innings Tuesday in a 7-3 loss at Toronto.

"He pitched good enough to win if we scored some runs,'' Valentine said. "Not quite the results we were looking for and I know he's a little disappointed but you take that 30 times a year, you're going to get a lot of wins out of it. I'd bet anything on that.''

If Bard's relief appearances versus Tampa are any indication, he could be in line for a victory Monday. After giving up a solo homer to Evan Longoria in his first outing against the Rays in August 2009, he's only allowed one more run - and seven hits - in 17 appearances.

Tampa Bay has dropped four straight for the first time since opening last season with six consecutive losses.