The time has come once again for the Red Sox to descend into the heart of darkness. OK, it's really just Tampa's Tropicana Field, but with their 2-15 record there since the start of last season, the Red Sox might be better off captaining a boat down the Congo River.
Yes, with their recent hot streak — winning six of their last seven games and 10 of their last 13 — the Red Sox have leapt out to a 3 1/2-game lead over the Rangers and a five-game lead over the Rays in the AL wild-card race.
But the Sox split the four games at the Trop with the Rays in the 2008 ALCS and are a snakebitten 1-5 in the lion's den so far in 2009. Boston dropped both games of a two-game set in Tampa on Aug. 4-5 in the midst of their post-All-Star break struggles.
"It hasn't been real pleasant," Red Sox manager Terry Francona told MLB.com about his squad's recent visits to the Rays' house of horrors. "Those cowbells [the fans ring] stay with you for about a week, and we certainly haven't had a lot of success, but we've got a day to gather our bullpen and get some rest. It will be fun. It's a really exciting time of year to play good teams — to play any team. But especially a team that has had their way with us down there. It will be fun to play."
The Rays have had their way with the Red Sox in St. Petersburg. But despite the Sox' struggles under the Trop's roof, the pitching matchups seem to favor the boys from Boston.
"I don't think they like coming to the Trop," Rays right-hander Matt Garza told MLB.com. "But they've got some big guns going against us, [Jon] Lester, [Josh] Beckett and [Clay] Buchholz. It's going to be one heck of a series. But why not? It's September, you know, playoff baseball."
Lester gets the call in the opener on Tuesday. The acclaimed Sox co-ace hasn't lost in seven starts, yet has only two wins over that period. Still, the Sox are 5-2 in those starts and are confident in the lefty's ability to shine in front of the Rays fans.
Taking the mound for the Rays on Tuesday in the place of recently traded lefty Scott Kazmir will be right-hander Andy Sonnanstine, who was just recalled from Triple-A Durham. Sonnanstine earned a win against the Sox on May 1, going 5 2/3 innings and giving up just two runs as the Rays rolled 6-2.
On Wednesday, the recently struggling Beckett will face off against Garza. And on Thursday, the newly unhittable Buchholz takes on fellow wunderkind David Price.
"First and foremost, we have to pitch the ball well," said catcher Jason Varitek. "This team is still going to rest on how well we pitch the ball. If we continue to do that and get quality starts day in and day out, we're going to win our fair share of games."
Regardless of Boston's struggles at Tropicana Field, the series will provide an opportunity for both teams as the season's vital stretch run nears. With just over 30 games remaining, it's a chance for the Red Sox to strengthen their grip on the wild card.
On the flip side, a Rays sweep at home would put the defending AL champs right back into the thick of the postseason discussion. Oh, the horror!
But the Sox are set to take it game by game and hope to keep up their stellar play even though they've left Fenway's friendly confines.
"For us on this road trip," Kevin Youkilis told MLB.com, "we just have to win each series and come back home healthy and keep doing what we're doing."
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