Originally posted on Fox Sports Florida  |  Last updated 7/13/12
In a way, the Tampa Bay Rays couldnt begin the second half of the 2012 season against a more fitting opponent. Theres no love lost between the Rays and their longtime division rival, the Boston Red Sox. They cleared benches in a tense on-field Fenway fracas during their last series in late May. Their respective managers exchanged much-publicized barbs over questions of whether Luke Scott was purposely targeted by Boston pitcher Franklin Morales. And theyve traded wins and losses this season like boxers delivering body blows. So if theyre going to get right down to business following the All-Star break, it might as well be against Boston, with a three-game series starting tonight at the Trop. The Rays enter the set with a 45-41 record, trailing the first place New York Yankees by 7.5 games and second-place Baltimore Orioles by a half game in the AL East. The Red Sox and Toronto Blue Jays lurk 2.5 games behind them at 43-43. While manager Joe Maddon still insists the Rays can win the division, that looks like a tall order the way New York has been playing. The Yankees have posted a 31-12 record in their last 43 games and stayed on a winning track even without the services of injured star pitchers CC Sabathia and Andy Pettitte. On the other hand, the Wild Race remains very up much for grabs, with Tampa Bay currently trailing Baltimore and the Angles by a half game in that race and maintaining a lead over Cleveland, Detroit, Oakland, Toronto and, of course, Boston. The Rays and Red Sox enter tonights 7:10 contest as the two most injured teams in the AL with Bostons normal lineup decimated by 20 players on the disabled list during the course of the season and Tampa Bay next with 14. The latest injury updates for the Rays came Thursday afternoon. Executive vice president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman told reporters that he expects third baseman Evan Longoria to return this season, though hes unable to attach a timetable due to the uncertain nature of hamstring tears. Longoria could begin a second attempt at a rehab assignment in seven-to-10 days. And if all goes well unlike last month when he tweaked his hamstring right off the bat in Durham the Rays lynchpin could conceivably be back on the field by early-to-mid-August. In addition, power-hitting outfielder Matt Joyce could return in two weeks and outfielder Sam Fuld, a defensive standout and key bench player, could be back even sooner from the wrist surgery thats sidelined him all season. Fuld was 1-for-3 with the Class A Charlotte Stone Crabs Wednesday night and is progressing well. The pitching staff could also get a boost in August with the return of pitcher Jeff Niemann, who suffered a broken leg in May when struck by a line drive in Toronto. The Rays certainly can use all the help they can get. According to the club, their team batting average of .232 at the break not only ranks as the worst in franchise history, it has a noteworthy historical claim in baseball as well. Only eight teams have hit as low as .232 by the All-Star break and still boasted a winning record. In fact, the last teams to do that were the 1972 Tigers (51-37), Orioles (50-38) and Mets (49-38). Some other startling stats that underscore Tampa Bays offensive woes: Their 363 runs scored so far are the fewest at the break since 2002 and their .376 slugging percentage is their worst ever at the break. On the flip side, the Rays 685 strikeouts represent their highest total prior to the All-Star game, surpassing the previous high of 652 in 2010. And their team ERA of 3.73 is third-best in club history at this stage. Manager Joe Maddon elaborated on some goals for improvement as the season moves forward now, including tightening up the teams uncharacteristically porous defense, with its 71 errors second only to Baltimores 75 for most in the majors). Just to play our style of game more consistently, meaning tightening up the defense, better situational hitting, Maddon said Thursday. For the most part the pitching has been in pretty good order, although there are certain components I just talked to them about (that) I want to get better. But our true identity is pitching and defense. Id really like to get back to that and I think the rest of the group would feed off that. Their challenge starts tonight with Jeremy Hellickson (4-5, 3.41) facing the aforementioned Morales (1-2, 3.50), with All-Star David Price (11-4, 2.82) and Clay Buchholz (8-2, 5.53) dueling Saturday at 7:10 and James Shields (8-5, 4.17) squaring off Sunday at 1:40 against Josh Beckett (4-7, 4.43). Boston has won five of the nine meetings this season, starting off with a pair of routs at Fenway Park in April: 12-2 and 13-5. But since then, the Rays have held the Sox to 22 runs in seven games while taking four of seven including a come-from-behind 4-3 win in the ninth inning (courtesy of Sean Rodriguez two-run homer over the Green Monster.) Thats one of a major-league high six times the Rays have won a game in which they trailed heading into the ninth inning a feat most recently achieved in Cleveland right before the break with their 7-6 win, fueled by three runs in the ninth. That sent the team into break with a much-needed emotional boost. Price and closer Fernando Rodney kept the good vibes going in the All-Star Game itself, each working a perfect inning for the American League keeping alive a streak of nine innings in which Rays pitchers have never allowed a run in the Summer Classic. And now comes the big test: getting off to a good second-half start against a heated Red Sox foe that desperately needs to do the same.
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