Red Sox Live Blog: Boston Finishes Off Rays to Take Series, Prepares for Kevin Youkilis’ Return to Fenway Park

Red Sox Live Blog: Boston Finishes Off Rays to Take Series, Prepares for Kevin Youkilis' Return to Fenway ParkFinal, Red Sox 7-3: Alfredo Aceves polished this one off for the Red Sox. It was a non-save situation, but you can't take any chances against a division rival, especially when you're trying to get off to a hot start in the second half of the season.

He did make it interesting, though, walking the bases full before getting the final out on a very long fly ball.

The Sox can leave this series with their heads held high. They took two of three from the Rays and were in the other game until the bullpen squandered Clay Buchholz's fine return from the disabled list.

The best takeaway from the weekend, though, has to be how well the Boston offense has performed, with today the best part. Jacoby Ellsbury was just the spark that everyone has predicted he would be, and the Red Sox continued to get hits up and down the order.

And if Josh Beckett's outing was any indication, perhaps the top tier of the starting rotation is ready to dig deep and take the team to new levels in the second half.

Not too many projections can be made after a three-game series, and today's game certainly had its flaws, as well. But in terms of going on a roll, the Red Sox have laid the groundwork.

Tomorrow brings a different kind of intrigue, as the White Sox return to Boston in Kevin Youkilis' return. After a bit of a war of words between Red Sox manager Bobby Valentine and Youkilis, where Valentine said Youkilis wasn't interested in reconciling and Youkilis said he had nothing to say back to Valentine, it could make for an interesting day.

Even more interesting, though, is that the White Sox are 49-39 and atop their division. The Red Sox have some ground to make up, and that starts again Monday.

Mid 9th, Red Sox 7-3: That's a quick one for the Red Sox, as Brent Lillibridge, Cody Ross and Jarrod Saltalamacchia all strike out to Wade Davis, who has battened down the hatches for the Rays.

Lillibridge came in for Adrian Gonzalez.

End 8th, Red Sox 7-3: Pedro Ciriaco hasn't been doing much with his bat since he came back to earth after his torrid first few games, but his defense has been just fine.

Ciriaco is known more for his skill with his glove than his bat, anyway, and he showed why with that grab. He was a good 15 feet from the ball before some good footwork and a full extension reeled in that catch.

Mid 8th, Red Sox 7-3: Anybody miss Jacoby Ellsbury? Oh, just all of Red Sox Nation. We hear ya.

Ellsbury has had a fine day at the plate. He added a single in the eighth to give himself a 3-for-5 day.

Ellsbury missed exactly three months after his last game on April 13 (and wasn't even scared to come back on the Friday the 13th in July). He's gotten progressively better in each of his three games, racking up one, two and three hits against the Rays, respectively.

He's the lone bright spot in a quick half-inning for the Sox, though.

End 7th, Red Sox 7-3: The craftiness returns!

Ben Zobrist looked to have put men on first and third with no outs when he hit one to right. Cody Ross made a hard throw from the outfield, but it looked like one of those throws you have to make to show you're still trying hard even when the other team is getting to you.

But Ross' throw was cut off on its way to third and fired back to first, doubling up Zobrist as he made a wide turn. That gave the Rays just one man on base with one out.

The Red Sox pitchers then finished off the deal.

Mark Melancon came in for Junichi Tazawa and took care of the rest of the inning. Melancon has been quietly solid for the Sox ever since coming back up from Pawtucket. His demotion was certainly due, thanks to a flame-out that had his ERA well into double-digits, but he's been great since his return. He's allowed just one earned run over 12 appearances and 13 2/3 innings pitched.

He was really zipping the ball in there that inning.

4:30 p.m. And now it's Mark Melancon's turn to throw a few.

4:25 p.m.: Bobby Valentine isn't wasting any time getting his new reliever working. Junichi Tazawa, called up today with Scott Atchison headed to the disabled list, has entered the game.

Mid 7th, Red Sox 7-3: Will Middlebrooks is a tough guy to get out, but Burke Badenhop did the trick there. He got Middlebrooks to ground out to third after a 3-for-3 day.

Badenhop certainly had the Sox' number in that one. He got Mikes Aviles and Pedro Ciriaco quickly, too, to wrap it up.

End 6th, Red Sox 7-3: As great as the Red Sox' bats have been, you really have to give credit to Josh Beckett.

He looked very uncomfortable and shaky at first, but he has turned a train wreck into a quality start.

After allowing three runs on four hits in the first inning, he's allowed just four hits since. He has seven strikeouts and has kept his pitch count down, which is why he could come out for this inning after really pushing the limit early.

He's over 100 pitches now, so that may be the end, but what a recovery for Beckett.

Mid 6th, Red Sox 7-3: So, what do you think is happening here?
A. The Red Sox are awesome.
B. The Rays pitchers stink pretty bad.
C. Tampa Bay players have been soaking in the fumes from the carpet that is the Tropicana infield for so long that they can't catch anymore.
D. All of the above.

That was a pretty solid inning for the Sox. Jacoby Ellsbury added to his great day with a single, Daniel Nava walked and David Ortiz got some retribution against the shift-y Rays with an infield single.

Cody Ross now has 41 RBIs on the year after sending Ellsbury home on a sacrifice fly.

4:03 p.m.: That was quick. Jake McGee is done for the day, and Burke Badenhop will be taking his place. McGee retired just one batter, striking out Adrian Gonzalez with the bases loaded. The bases loaded? Yes, that's why McGee is leaving the game.

3:50 p.m.: Our suspicions have been confirmed. Jake McGee has come into the game for the Rays in place of James Shields. He'll face the top of the Red Sox order, starting with Jacoby Ellsbury.

McGee has faced Boston three times this season, throwing 3 1/3 innings of scoreless ball.

Shields has been stellar at points in his career, but that's his fourth straight start of allowing 10 hits or more. Let's downgrade expectations from here on out.

End 5th, Red Sox 6-3: Josh Beckett continues to look stronger as the game goes on. He's really flipping that curveball in there now, and his mixing and matching has had good effect — he struck out five Rays in a row.

Beckett hasn't been very economical today, with his pitch count up to 91 already, but he's started getting punchouts when he really needs to. After seeing so many guys get on base early in the game, it bodes well for Beckett that he's found a way to nail this one down.

Mid 5th, Red Sox 6-3: There are plenty of lovely things for the Red Sox to do while in Tampa, but by far, the team's favorite sight has to be booting James Shields out of a game.

After piecing together a fair amount of hits and driving up Shields' batting average against over the afternoon, the Sox pulled together a knockout punch in the fifth.

Daniel Nava started it off with a home run that put Boston ahead for the first time since the first inning.

David Ortiz and Cody Ross both lashed singles through the infield to get aboard, and Will Middlebrooks finished the job, plating two runs (one of them scored by Adrian Gonzalez, who hit into a fielder's choice) to give the Sox a nice cushion.

Shields is up to 112 pitches, so he's not likely to come out for more punishment now that he's escaped this inning.

End 4th, 3-3: Josh Beckett is having an uneven day, but rest assured that even the poorest outing on the mound is nothing compared to what the man has looked like in the batter's box recently.

Beckett appeared to improve a bit in the fourth, though, ringing up Elliot Johnson, Carlos Pena and Ben Zobrist for strikeouts. He looked very sharp on those pitches — to the point that you didn't care how long it took him to gather himself on the mound and deal.

He did give up a single to Will Rhymes –  and yes, that's the same Will Rhymes who fainted from shock after being hit by a pitch earlier this year. The culprits? Also the Red Sox.

It's strange to see Beckett having such a hard time against the Rays. He actually leads Major League Baseball with a 2.46 ERA against Tampa Bay since 2007 and hasn't lost to the Rays in nine straight starts.

Mid 4th, 3-3: The Red Sox are playing crafty baseball, but so far their tricks are not yielding the runs they need to get ahead.

Boston has to be happy to have Will Middlebrooks back in the lineup, and he showed again in this inning why he's so valuable. First up in the frame, he drilled a shot down the third-base line for a quick double.

But Mike Aviles was just as impressive, albeit in a very different way. Bobby Valentine may have been the one who ordered him to bunt, but Aviles did it with aplomb, dropping it right where Rays pitcher James Shields couldn't quite get to it. And boy, did Aviles hustle. He hoofed it down the line to get two men on for the Sox with no outs.

But Pedro Ciriaco struck out, and Jacoby Ellsbury bounced into a double play. The craftiness was all for naught.

End 3rd, 3-3: Josh Beckett seems to have at least two things figured out today: how to take forever to throw pitches, and how to let guys get on base.

Beckett put together his second walk of the afternoon on his 47th pitch, sending leadoff batter Hideki Matsui to first. As for the time it's taking him to throw the ball toward home, well, let's just say he's in Daisuke Matsuzaka territory.

Beckett has been getting progressively better at limiting the damage, though. Three fly balls later, and he's out of the inning.

Mid 3rd, 3-3: Cody Ross looked like he was trying a new kind of bat flip there. He broke his bat on a big swing, but not your conventional, splintering in half bat-break. This hit sawed the bat off a couple of inches above his hand, sending the entire barrel and some of the handle windmilling toward the stands.

It was all to no avail, though, as Ross' shot was just a long fly ball.

Jarrod Saltalamacchia ended the inning with a groundout, but at least it wasn't a strikeout — in his last 20 at-bats, Saltalamacchia has struck out 13 times.

End 2nd, 3-3: Josh Beckett wasn't unscathed in that inning, but he certainly looked better.

The defense was also a bit mixed, with both a great play and one that just looked bad.

Elliot Johnson led off the inning with a single, but Jarrod Saltalamacchia erased him from the basepaths on a steal attempt with a nice throw to Mike Aviles at second.

Beckett walked Will Rhymes, and then the defense gave the Red Sox a collective heart attack, muffing a ball that fell into left field just beyond short for a Ben Zobrist double. But Beckett had enough to get B.J. Upton and end the inning.

Mid 2nd, 3-3: Red Sox fans have to love seeing their lineup pick up the starting pitcher.

Mike Aviles evened the score right back up in the top of the inning, blasting a two-run homer from the No. 8 hole to tie the game at three runs apiece.

The Red Sox definitely have some punch and energy today, and that was even before leadoff dynamo Jacoby Ellsbury laced a nice double into the right field corner. (Do you think Ellsbury is the best leadoff hitter in the league? It's stiff competition.)

End 1st, 3-1 Rays: That's an unfortunate inning for Josh Beckett. He never looked comfortable out there as he not only gave up Boston's early lead but also sunk the Sox a bit.

Beckett got in a jam early, giving up singles to Will Rhymes and Carlos Pena that put men on first and third. But Beckett looked like he may be able to work some magic when Ben Zobrist sent a liner back to the mound.

Beckett made a stab at the hit but couldn't make a catch. Instead of an out and possibly doubling up the runner on first, Rhymes scored, and Beckett was left with no outs and two men on.

Beckett reached deep, using his curveball to nab B.J. Upton and Hideki Matsui on strikeouts, but then he let a pitch get away from him. He plunked Jeff Keppinger, loading the bases. Desmond Jennings then made good in his at-bat, hitting a single to put the Rays up 3-1.

Beckett seemed ill at ease a few times in the inning, taking the time to talk to catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia and figure things out. He took his time on a lot of pitches.

People from all throughout the Red Sox ranks will tell you that is doesn't matter who catches Beckett — Jason Varitek last year, Kelly Shoppach or Saltalamacchia this year — but he certainly looks uncomfortable out there today.

Mid 1st, 1-0 Red Sox: Put the back questions aside, folks. Adrian Gonzalez is feeling just fine.

Gonzalez made the most of his spot in the cleanup hole one day after missing a start with a sore back. He smacked a single with a couple of men on base, putting the Red Sox up 1-0 early in this one.

Tampa Bay's starting pitcher, James Shields, was not incredibly sharp to open the game up, and the Red Sox should be thankful. They got two free walks from Shields, and they also got lucky on a Daniel Nava attempted steal of second base, where Nava would have been out by a bunch if the pitch he ran on wasn't called ball four.

That set up the Gonzalez hit, although the Red Sox did waste a chance at more with some poor running by David Ortiz, who was tagged out trying to advance to third after the throw home to catch Nava was fumbled. Cody Ross struck out swinging to end the frame.

Shields threw 29 pitches in that inning, just 12 of them strikes.

1:40 p.m.: And we're off! That's the first pitch at Tropicana Field as the Red Sox look to get it going against the Rays.

1:30 p.m.: For those of you afraid that Adrian Gonzalez's back issue is going to have him out for a while, rest assured. Not only is Gonzalez back in the lineup, batting cleanup, but it also appears that the injury was more of a fluke. Gonzalez was reportedly leaning over to greet a child in a stroller when his back locked up the other day. So, hopefully no long-term damage has been done.

With all the injuries the Red Sox have had this season, you've got be scared when a charitable act can sideline a guy.

12:45 p.m.: It appears Bobby Valentine is ready to talk about whatever went down between him and Kevin Youkilis this season. Valentine gave reporters the dish down in Tampa, with the case of he said/he said guaranteed to get a second look tomorrow when Youkilis and his new team, the Chicago White Sox, come to town.

11:30 a.m.: Did anyone out there know David Ortiz has a nine-game hitting streak where he's been batting .429? News to me. He's batting third today. The rest of the lineups for you:

Red Sox (44-44)

Jacoby Ellsbury CF
Daniel Nava LF
David Ortiz DH
Adrian Gonzalez 1B
Cody Ross RF
Jarrod Saltalamacchia C
Will Middlebrooks 3B
Mike Aviles SS
Pedro Ciriaco 2B

Josh Beckett P

Rays (46-42)

Will Rhymes 2B
Carlos Pena 1B
Ben Zobrist RF
B.J. Upton CF
Hideki Matsui DH
Jeff Keppinger 3B
Desmond Jennings LF
Jose Lobaton C
Elliot Johnson SS

James Shields P

8 a.m. ET: Red Sox fans would like to see their Boys of Summer erase a mediocre first half of baseball in one big swoop. But aside from taking 60 or so games in a row, they'll take a series win against a solid American League East team.

The Red Sox (44-44) have a chance to do just that Sunday in the final game of a three-game series against Tampa Bay (46-42). The Rays are holding on to the third spot in the American League East, with the Red Sox just two games behind them. With a win, the Sox can move up in the division, put a little distance between themselves and the Toronto Blue Jays, and take serious strides toward making the second half of the season far more pleasant than the first.

Starting for the Red Sox will be the pitcher many have been begging to come around all year. Josh Beckett (4-7, 4.43 ERA) can still be dominating on the mound, even without the fastest stuff of his career, but he has struggled this season. After yo-yoing between some stellar days and a few truly bad outings, he'll look to post his eighth straight start of six innings or more Sunday. He's had success against the Rays this year — he pitched eight innings of one-run ball against Tampa on April 13 and escaped Fenway Park with a 3-2 win on May 26, when he allowed two earned runs over seven innings.

Beckett will be facing James Shields (8-5, 4.17 ERA), who continues to impress in his eighth year with the Rays. Shields has been mowing down the opposition, striking out 109 batters in 118 2/3 innings pitched. He's faced Boston only once this season but flummoxed the Sox in that outing, winning a 1-0 game after throwing 8 1/3 scoreless frames.

Tune in to NESN at 12:30 p.m. for pregame coverage, with first pitch scheduled for 1:40 p.m. And, as always, follow the live blog for all of the latest news and analysis.

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