After going 3-3 and getting bit by the injury bug on a six-game West Coast road trip, the Red Sox will return to the friendly confines of Fenway Park for a two-game set with the Tampa Bay Rays on Tuesday.
The Rays were the hottest team in baseball throughout the first month and a half of the season but have sputtered as of late. They are 12-19 since May 24, and have gone from leading the division by six games to three games back and in third place.
For some Tampa Bay Rays analysis, Justin Klein of Rayhawk Review answered some questions for NESN.com.
NESN.com: The Rays were a popular pick last season, equipped with a solid core and coming off a World Series appearance. However, they failed to live up to the hype and missed out on the postseason. What is the biggest reason that the Rays have regained their 2008 form this season?
Justin Klein: I don’t know if the Rays have regained their same form as the 2008 season. The squad of 2008 had mediocre expectations and thrived on the fact they were in a place that the Rays, as an organization, had never been before. Don’t get me wrong, this team is far more talented, but they lack leadership and motivation, unlike the 2008 team.
The starting rotation is one of the best in baseball and the addition of a real closer in Rafael Soriano is a big reason why the Rays have won so many games this year. The Rays lead the American League with a 3.50 ERA and Soriano is 18 of 19 in save opportunities. Every championship team wins with great pitching, and so far the Rays are good in this category.
If you would have asked me this question a month ago, I would have added their bats and the ability to score runs, but after getting only seven hits in three games, including getting no-hit for the second time this year against the worst rotation in baseball, I think I will leave that out for now.
NESN.com: The Rays have come back down to earth a little bit lately and have struggled throughout the month of June. What is the biggest reason for the drop-off in recent weeks?
J.K.: Consistency has been the biggest issue for the Rays of late. When the pitching is good, the hitting is horrible, and vice versa. Consistency is the key to winning ball games and we are just not seeing the same Rays team that started the season so hot. It wasn’t too long ago the Rays were six games above the Yankees, and the Red Sox weren’t even a part of the conversation. Now, the Rays are in third and the team is showing its frustrations on the field.
NESN.com: Tampa Bay has been no-hit twice this year, and three times since last July. Is there any reason why such a potent lineup has gone ice cold from time to time?
J.K.: I asked myself the same thing and I cannot figure this out — especially when the pitchers faced in those games are not dominating pitchers. Let us also not forget that they almost got no-hit against C.C. Sabathia earlier in the season; now that’s a pitcher that should shut us down, not Mark Buerhle, Dallas Braden and Edwin Jackson. The batting order has changed a lot this year due to lack of performance by some of the players (Pat Burrell, Carlos Pena, B.J. Upton, Dioner Navarro), but I don’t think of that as being the reason for this horrible stat. But I guess it could be. It is easier to perform knowing where you’re batting in the order and what your duties are in the lineup day in and day out.
NESN.com: David Price has been phenomenal this season. Where do you think he ranks among the game’s best pitchers?
J.K.: Price has proven that he is a top 10 pitcher in the league. It’s too early to say he is the best pitcher in the league, but he definitely has the potential to be there later on in his career. As long as he stays consistent, Price should be a 20-game winner this season while making his first All-Star team. I would also put him in Cy Young talks, as he leads the AL in wins with an 11-3 record and has a 2.44 ERA.
NESN.com: Red Sox fans know how dangerous center fielder B.J. Upton can be, but many would say that he has underachieved so far this season. How are Rays fans responding to B.J. Upton and his inability to live up to his freakish abilities? What would you say is the cause of his struggles?
J.K.: Most fans have gotten used to the fact that B.J. is not going to live up to his hype, or potential I should say. When Upton comes up to bat, you will hear a majority of the fans mumble "here comes another strikeout," or when he does make contact, "why the hell is he jogging to first base?" So, I would say most fans are purely fed up with his lack of motivation and hustle.
We got a glimpse of what he is capable of in the 2008 playoffs, but that’s all it was — a glimpse. We thought coming into the 2009 season that B.J. was going to be a .300 hitter and hit over 30 homers. Instead, he ended the season batting .241 with only 11 home runs. I would blame all of his struggles on lack of effort and motivation. We are all tired of his act and I’m convinced that even with all of his potential, this is all we’re going to get from Upton — a subpar hitter with tremendous skills in the outfield.
NESN.com: Do you think that Upton and Evan Longoria’s altercation from Sunday will be something that will linger throughout the season? How do you think the team should handle it, and do you expect anything to be done?
J.K.: It’s about damn time a leader on the team grows some cojones and says something to Upton about his lack of hustle on the field. The lack of hustle shows on every play and is very detrimental to the team. So, as you can tell, not only are the fans sick of the act, his team is too. I think some altercations can be good for a team, like the Rays during this slump in the season. So only time will tell if this was a good one.
As a team, they need to handle this situation as an eye-opener and a motivational tool going ahead in the season. As long as B.J. shows more effort, this issue should not linger throughout the season. But if he keeps this up, there will be drama in the clubhouse. The fact of the matter is that Joe Maddon should have taken care of this issue a long time ago, but Longoria did this at the right time heading into the Boston series.
Thanks again to Justin Klein of Rayhawk Review for previewing this intense two-game series.