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Red Sox-Rays series preview: They’re starting from the bottom

04.29.14 at 4:54 pm ET
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It’ll be a matchup of the AL East two best teams from a year ago as the Red Sox take on the Rays Tuesday night, kicking off an eight-game homestand.

The Red Sox bounced back from a tough series against the Yankees to take two of three from the Blue Jays in Toronto, but couldn’t complete the sweep on Sunday. Jon Lester again suffered from a lack of run support from the Red Sox

“Once again [Lester] worked deep into the ballgame and gave us an opportunity to win,” manager John Farrell told reporters. “He has been the one guy in our rotation where runs are a premium and are seemingly hard to come by.”

Regardless of Sunday’s outcome, the Red Sox find themselves in fourth place in the division, and they can thank themselves and the Rays for helping to pull the Sox out of the basement.

The Rays have hit a skid lately, dropping five of their last six and six of their last eight contests. They come into the series with an AL-East worst record of 11-15.

The Rays’ pitching, usually a major strength for the club, has suffered from inconsistency and injuries in the early going of 2014. Jeremy Hellickson was the first member of the rotation to go down after undergoing right elbow surgery over the offseason. He’ll be on the shelf until June. Alex Cobb, who allowed just four earned runs in 19 innings through his first three starts of the season, was pulled from a game on April 12 after seven scoreless innings and diagnosed with a strained oblique muscle. And perhaps the biggest blow of them all was the news that 24-year-old Matt Moore would need Tommy John surgery. He underwent the operation early this month. Inconsistent performances from ace David Price and Chris Archer has left the Rays with a 4.60 rotation ERA, 11th in the American League. The injuries have led to reliever Cesar Ramos and 35-year-old former Red Sox pitcher Erik Bedard getting starts for the Rays.

Here are the matchups for the three-game set:

Tuesday: John Lackey (3-2, 4.22) vs. Erik Bedard (0-1, 7.45)
Wednesday: Felix Doubront (1-3, 6.00) vs. Chris Archer (2-1, 4.11)
Thursday: Jake Peavy (1-0, 2.87) vs. Cesar Ramos (1-1, 3.38)

WHO’S HOT: RED SOX

– The Red Sox may have found a bit of stability in the leadoff role. Dustin Pedroia has been slotted in at the top of the order for the last four games, and went 4-for-13 out of the top spot in the series with Toronto. Pedroia’s bat has picked up as of late, with the second baseman hitting .351/.442/.486 in his last nine contests.

The one noticeable absence from Pedroia’s game so far is his power. Although he’s clubbed nine doubles, Pedroia is without a home run through his first 106 plate appearances of the season. It’s not his longest home run drought to start the season, though; in 2013, he didn’t hit a homer until May 6, 142 plate appearances into the season.

– After missing 19 games with a calf strain, Will Middlebrooks provided a jolt to the offense in Toronto. It probably helped that he crushes the ball in the Rogers Centre; after going 3-for-11 with a double and home run over the weekend, the third baseman is now hitting .315 with a 1.069 OPS in 14 career games north of the border.

Mike Napoli continues to be the most consistent power source in the Red Sox lineup. The first baseman is 8-for-19 in his last five games with three doubles, a home run, three walks and three strikeouts. He leads the team with five home runs (three more than anyone else on the roster), 15 RBIs, a .304 batting average, .396 OBP and a .533 slugging mark.

WHO’S HOT: RAYS

Ben Zobrist has been a key contributor for the Rays offense this season, coming into the series hitting .317/.407/.455 with five doubles and three home runs. The second baseman has been red hot over his last 10 games, going 17-for-45 (.378) with four doubles and five walks compared to only three strikeouts.

Matt Joyce has been on fire for pretty much the entire month of April. Joyce leads the Rays in many offensive categories, including RBIs (15), batting average (.333), OBP (.447) and slugging percentage (.540). He only collected one hit in his last four games, but he drew six walks (while striking out only once) and drove in two runs.

– Center fielder Desmond Jennings has been producing lately, hitting .333/.419/.389 over his last 10 games. He comes into the series with a .388 OBP and eight extra-base hits on the season, as well as a perfect stolen base record, swiping four bags without being caught.

WHO’S NOT: RED SOX

Grady Sizemore is just 3-for-37 (.081) in his last 10 games, although two of those three hits have gone for extra bases (a double and a triple). Interestingly, when Sizemore is not batting leadoff, he fares much better, hitting .333 in 33 at-bats lower in the order while batting just .103 with a .146 OBP out of the leadoff slot. The outfielder hit out of the two-hole for the first time this season on Sunday, but he went 0-for-4 with two strikeouts on the afternoon.

– Doubront’s inconsistencies this season have some wondering if the Red Sox should shake up the rotation a bit. The left-hander lasted just 2 2/3 innings in his last outing, giving up seven runs (although just three of them were earned) and throwing 73 pitches in the short stint. Doubront owns an ugly 6.00 ERA and 1.708 WHIP in 24 innings of work over five starts.

David Ross has been cold at the plate lately, hitting just .179/.258/.357 in nine games this season. But he’s also been uncharacteristically unstable behind the plate as well. In addition to two errors and a passed ball, Ross has thrown out just 10 percent of runners (caught one in 10 chances), below the league average 26 percent and well below Ross’ career mark of 38 percent caught.

WHO’S NOT: RAYS

– Shortstop Yunel Escobar, who signed a two-year, $13 million extension with the Rays earlier this season, has gotten off to a slow start. He’s batting just .167 (4-for-24) in his last seven games, and comes into the series with a .573 OPS in 26 contests this season.

– Wil Myers, who lived up the hype in 2013, coming away with the AL Rookie of the Year award, is going through a bit of a sophomore slump. The outfielder is hitting just .232 with a .642 OPS on the year, and even though he’s driven in 11 runs and has a couple longballs to his credit, his power has largely been missing. Myers does have a six-game hitting streak, but has just one hit in each of those games.

– When the Rays traded for reliever Heath Bell over the offseason, some seemed to think that the club had a chance to get Bell back to his old form when he was a dominant closer. They haven’t been successful in that mission so far. Bell has been somewhat of a disaster, giving up 11 earned runs in just 14 innings of work. A big chunk of those runs came in one outing, when he allowed five runs in 1 2/3 innings against the Twins. The righty has given up runs in six of his 11 appearances this season.

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