TAMPA-ST. PETERSBURG — The up-and-down Tampa Bay Rays continue to hover just above .500, very much in the thick of the American League wild-card chase, but they have their hands full as the Boston Red Sox come to Tropicana Field for a two-game series.
The Rays (58-55) won their last two series against the Red Sox, including taking three of four just before the All-Star break. However, Boston (63-49) comes in with considerable steam, having won six games in a row, including a four-game sweep of the Chicago White Sox over the weekend.
Eduardo Nunez, acquired from the San Francisco Giants as the Red Sox’s main trade-deadline upgrade, has been superb since coming to Boston. He is hitting .400 with four home runs, 12 RBIs and three stolen bases in nine games with his new club.
“We’re getting pitches on the plate and not missing them,” Boston manager John Farrell said. “Since Eduardo’s been here, he’s been part of that surge.”
The Rays, too, are benefiting from their recent acquisitions. Designated hitter Lucas Duda is proving reliable hitting second in the order; shortstop Adeiny Hechavarria is shining on defense; and three new relievers are stabilizing a struggling bullpen.
Tampa Bay relies on its power bats, as seen in two shutout losses and a walk-off 2-1 win Sunday on Steven Souza’s ninth-inning home run. The Rays have struck out 1,085 times — second in the majors — but manager Kevin Cash likes the formula.
“We have a bunch of guys that are going to strike out … but the tradeoff is pretty good when you have guys that can hit 2-irons out of the ballpark like (Souza) did,” Cash said after Tampa Bay’s first walk-off home run in more than three years.
The Tuesday pitching matchup favors the Red Sox.
Boston’s Chris Sale is 13-4 with a 2.70 ERA, and in each of his three starts against the Rays this year, he struck out 12 in seven innings. The Rays scrapped a 4-1 win against him in his last outing against them, on July 6, and for his career, he is a mere mortal 6-5 with a 3.67 ERA.
Sale is tied for the league lead in wins and ERA, and he is first with 216 strikeouts and a 0.91 WHIP.
On the other side is Rays rookie Austin Pruitt, who has moved from the bullpen and could stick in the rotation down the stretch. Pruitt is 6-2 despite a 5.65 ERA. He struggled in two relief appearances against Boston in April, with a 13.50 ERA and a 3.60 WHIP, thanks to an eight-hit, four-run outing in which he only got seven outs.
Pruitt was sharp in his most recent outing, when he threw 6 1/3 shutout innings in a 3-0 win at Houston on Wednesday. However, in his previous outing, he yielded five runs in five innings during a July 28 loss at Yankee Stadium.
The Rays are tied with the Kansas City Royals for the second AL wild card. They have the confidence of knowing they are 6-5 against Boston this season. The two teams will meet again for a final six games between Sept. 8 and Sept. 17, and much more could be on the line