Red Sox Look to Stay Ahead of Resurgent Rays in AL East With Series at Tropicana Field

Red Sox Look to Stay Ahead of Resurgent Rays in AL East With Series at Tropicana FieldThe Red Sox head to Tampa Bay held together by the super glue that is Daniel Nava, Darnell McDonald and Bill Hall.

But even though the Sox are banged up, they've managed to keep pace in a tight AL East. They enter play Monday only 1 1/2 games behind the first-place Yankees. Right on the heels of the Red Sox are the resurgent Rays, who had a rough June but are coming off a series win against the Minnesota Twins and a 9-4 thumping of Boston last week at Fenway Park.

Tampa has had some problems of its own, though, as the Rays return to the Trop. They went 11-14 in June and released their once-iron grip over first place. They also experienced a dugout spat when Evan Longoria called out B.J. Upton for questionable effort on a ball. The spat led to the benching of Upton.

The Rays may have cooled off after a blazing start, but they are still part of the three-horse race in the AL East. So we asked Steve Slowinski of DRaysBay.com to answer some questions as both the Red Sox and Rays meet for the last time before the All-Star break.

NESN.com: The Rays have been reeling since their fast start and despite a rough month of June, they managed a convincing win against the Sox last week to split the series. What glimmers of hope have you seen from the Rays during their troubled times that can keep Rays fans at ease heading into the second half?

Steve Slowinski: The biggest glimmer of hope is that despite their losing ways this past month, there hasn't been one glaring problem that's been plaguing the Rays. At times their starters have pitched poorly, while at others, the offense has failed to score. After starting the season hitting in nearly every runner in scoring position, the Rays have regressed this past month, stranding tons and tons of runners in scoring position. They're still working counts well, walking, and hitting the ball hard (except for Carlos Pena, but that's another story), but the hits aren't falling in and they aren't coming at the right moments. Is that a problem? Definitely, but it's not something that should continue. As long as the Rays keep hitting the ball, eventually the hits will line up and their luck will even out. It's just a matter of how long it takes.

NESN.com: After Boston swept the Rays the last time they were at the Trop, it kicked off the Sox' hot streak and allowed them to climb back into contention. Now they’re returning to the field where the Rays have not really had much of a home-field advantage (20-19 at home compared to 26-13 on the road). How would you explain their woes at home?

S.S.: I know it's not a sexy answer, but I don't think there's a "reason" the Rays have played poorly at home this year — it's just one of those random, odd things that happens over the course of a baseball season. You can try and blame the fans, the stadium, the local bars, whatever you want, but that's what social psychologists would call a confirmation bias — seeking information to explain your preconceived ideas. The Rays have been dominant at home the past two seasons and had trouble on the road, so they've done a complete 180 degree turn this year. To me, it doesn't matter where the Rays win games, just as long as they win them.

NESN.com: Now that we’re coming up on the All-Star break, the focus is now shifting to the trade deadline. It’s become apparent that the Rays were not quite as invincible as they looked earlier this season, so are there any holes they are looking to fix come July 31, or are they content with the current roster?

S.S.: The Rays' front office is incredibly smart and I like to believe that they're always looking for ways to improve the team, regardless of how well the team is playing. Right now, I imagine the Rays are looking for three things: an extra bat, an ace pitcher and bullpen depth. The Rays' offense has been inconsistent and could use another home-run threat, while the rotation is strong all the way but could still be improved by the addition of, say, Cliff Lee. And although the Rays' bullpen has been one of the best in the majors so far this year, we shouldn't expect Joacquin Benoit and Grant Balfour to keep being this dominant; extra depth is never a bad thing to have.

Of course, the Rays already have expanded their budget considerably this season, so any move they make will need to be cheap or clear budget space. They have the prospects to make a big trade happen, though, so expect them to be involved in many of the big names at the deadline.

NESN.com: Who would you say has been the team’s midseason MVP?

S.S.: Carl Crawford, without a doubt. As one of my fellow writers at DRaysBay recently said, he's redefining "contract year". He's hitting a career high batting average, walking more than ever before, hitting for power like it's 2006 all over again and playing league-leading defense out in left field. While the rest of the team has been slumping, he's plowed through June to the tune of an .861 OPS. It was never going to be easy to watch him leave in free agency after the year, and this performance is making it even tougher.

NESN.com: Were the Rays of April and May the real deal? What is it going to take to regain that status in the second half?

S.S.: The Rays aren't as good as they were in April and May, but they also aren't as bad as they're playing now. Everything went right for the Rays in the beginning of the year — their starters pitching quality start after quality start, while the offense was driving in every runner on base — and I wasn't expecting them to continue winning 70 percent of their games. At the same time, I expect them to win more than 43 percent of their games, which is what they've done for around the last month.

They need more offense, more luck and more consistency — one of which I hope they acquire at the trade deadline and two of which should come around on their own. Their team right now has the talent to win more than 90 games, though, so they really only need their luck and consistency to come back around.

NESN.com: How do you think the team has handled the Upton situation? Benching arguably your best all-around player is a bold move, but was it the right move?

S.S.: Call me naive, but I don't believe that [Joe] Maddon has been benching Upton for the past 4-5 games. At first Maddon stated that Upton has being rested for matchup reasons, and now he's stating that Upton tweaked a hamstring while pinch-hitting late in one of those games. The Upton situation has gotten blown out of proportion and many fans in Tampa are overreacting to Upton's gaff, but he's still an important part of the Rays' offense and defense and needs to be in that lineup. The problem is with expectations: If you expect him to be a .290 BA, 25 HR guy, you're going to be constantly frustrated with Upton. His numbers and talent suggest he's more a .260 BA, 15-20 home run guy that will walk a bunch, steal you 40-plus bases, hit lots of doubles and play stellar defense. That's not what people expected after his 2007 season, but that doesn't mean he's not a very valuable player.

NESN.com: Tampa Bay’s rotation is statistically the tops in the AL East. Will their starting arsenal remain this strong in the second half?

S.S.: Yes and no. James Shields (4.76 ERA) has gotten unlucky on home-run balls, but his strikeout and walk numbers are stellar. By those measures, he should only get better as the season progresses. Matt Garza (4.08 ERA) has had both dominant starts and less-than-stellar performances, but overall, his line is around what we should expect for the rest of the year. There's no way David Price keep his ERA as shiny as it is right now (2.42 ERA) — he's let up a very low number of home runs — but that doesn't mean he will pitch poorly from here on out; he's begun to break out and if he keeps improving, he could be a force to reckon with by next season.

And then there's the two oddballs: Jeff Niemann and Wade Davis. Niemann has been the Rays' most consistent starter and his ERA makes him look like the ace of the Rays' staff so far (2.80 ERA), but his underlying numbers suggest he's playing over his head. He's let up an unsustainable low number of hits and home runs, and he's stranded a league high number of runners on base. He's an above-average pitcher, but he's not the ace that he's looked like. And Davis — well, he hasn't been that good (4.68 ERA). He's a rookie pitcher, though, and he's flashed moments of promise, so I'm trying to be patient and let him improve. Then again, there's top prospect Jeremy Hellickson dominating down in Triple-A, so yeah. It's tough being patient sometimes.

***
Thanks again to Steve Slowinski of DRaysBay.com for his insight.

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