The Red Sox’ impressive series wins over the Detroit Tigers and New York Yankees last week have given Boston a solid cushion for the No. 1 seed in the American League playoffs. If that were to hold, the Sox would play the one-game Wild Card winner in the ALDS, making the three-game series in St. Petersburg starting Tuesday night a potential playoff preview with the Tampa Bay Rays.
The Rays enter the week in sole possession of the second wild card spot, with the Orioles and Indians trailing Tampa Bay by 1 1/2 games, but Tampa Bay is slumping at the wrong time. The Rays lost their past four series, and they have fallen in 11 of their last 15 games. Star third baseman Evan Longoria is hitting just .176 with two extra-base hits in that span. But a vast majority of those past 15 games were on the road, and Tampa Bay has the AL’s best home record at 44-26.
Even with ace Clay Buchholz back from the disabled list and set to start Tuesday’s opener, the Sox are +135 Bovada underdogs for that game, and will be around the same number on the series line. Buchholz (9-0, 1.71) will be limited to around 80 pitches. His best start of the season was April 14 against Tampa Bay as Buchholz blanked Tampa Bay on two hits over eight innings, striking out 11 and holding the Rays hitless until the eighth. Buchholz has shut down Longoria over their careers as the third baseman is hitting just .219 with 11 strikeouts in 32 at-bats.
Buchholz is countered by lefty David Price (8-7, 3.51). Price was clobbered last Thursday in Anaheim, allowing six runs and 11 hits in seven innings. The left-hander has lost consecutive starts for the first time since the 2011 season. Sox fans will remember Price made back-to-back starts against Boston at Fenway in late July due to a rainout. Price won both, allowing two earned runs and just seven hits in 16.1 innings. He is 2-1 with a 2.55 ERA in four starts against Boston this year. Mike Napoli has a home run in 10 at-bats off Price this season, Jacoby Ellsbury is 1-for-12 against him and Dustin Pedroia is 2-for-12 with four strikeouts.
Wednesday’s game will feature Live Betting, and Tampa Bay will send right-hander and Boston native Alex Cobb (8-3, 2.99) to the mound. He didn’t pitch well his last time out, either, allowing four runs and seven hits in a loss to Seattle. The Rays have lost his past three starts, although Cobb has a 2.93 ERA in five starts since coming off the DL with a head injury suffered on a scary line drive. Cobb is 0-1 with a 5.29 ERA in three starts against the Sox this year. Pedroia is 4-for-9 with two RBIs off Cobb, Shane Victorino is 3-for-8 with two doubles and no Boston player has homered off Cobb in 2013.
Thursday, Tampa Bay starts Jeremy Hellickson (11-8, 5.04). He shut out the Angels over 5.1 innings last time out and is 1-0 with a 2.77 ERA in two starts against Boston this year. Ellsbury has three hits in six at-bats in 2013 off him. Jarrod Saltalamacchia has a homer and double in six at-bats.
Boston leads the season series 10-6 and is 4-2 at Tropicana Field.