Monday, June 30, 2008

A view of the Rays from the Boston press

The Rays ended the first half of the season Sunday with the best record in baseball, not to mention the best record in team history after 81 games. They have certainly gotten everyone’s attention, including the second place Boston Red Sox, who begin a three-game series tonight at Tropicana Field.

Here’s what they’re saying in the Boston papers

From Gordon Edes of the Boston Globe:

The assumption, from the time the MLB computers spat out the 2008 schedule last summer, was that the Red Sox would be playing a meaningful series this week.

But no one, outside of Joe Maddon's immediate family and closest friends, dreamed it would come at the Trop. That visit to the Bronx over the Fourth? Hey, the fireworks begin tonight in St. Pete, where the Sox try to wrest first place away from the Tampa Bay Rays, young, gifted, and still amped from the last time they played - and fought - the Sox.

With Boston falling, 3-2, to the Astros yesterday afternoon, a tie-breaking pinch single by former Sox second baseman Mark Loretta the latest blow to Hideki Okajima's increasingly fragile psyche, the Sox find themselves a half-game in arrears of the Rays, 4-3 winners in Pittsburgh.

The Rays, of course, never have been in first place this deep into any of their previous 10 seasons. No team in the American League East other than the Yankees or Red Sox have been in first as late as July since the 2000 season, when the Blue Jays still held the top spot on July 14 before fading to third.

Sox third baseman Mike Lowell, mindful that the Rays swept the Sox on their last visit to the Trop in April, professed not to be surprised that the Rays are where they are.

"They've played damn good baseball for three months," said Lowell, who came to the plate against Astros closer Jose Valverde with a chance to duplicate his ninth-inning home run from Saturday night, but instead tapped into a force play, Kevin Youkilis then lining out to leave the Sox with a total of 13 stranded runners yesterday. "I think that's a pretty good track record. This is a big series for us. We want to play well. But I don't think it's a be-all or end-all."

But will it be that for the Rays?

"It's a big series," Lowell reiterated. "The media are going to want to hype it up. It's a series that whoever wins will be in first place at the end of it, and that's important to us."

From Jeff Horrigan of the Boston Herald:

For most of their first 10 major league seasons, the Tampa Bay Rays basically played the role of the hapless Washington Generals to the Red Sox vastly-superior Harlem Globetrotters.

When they head to Tropicana Field tonight to open a three-game series, however, it will be the Sox looking up in the standings, attempting to avoid having a figurative bucket of confetti thrown in their face by the American League’s top team.

Hideki Okajima surrendered a run-scoring, pinch-hit single to Mark Loretta with two outs in the eighth inning yesterday at Minute Maid Park, resulting in a 3-2 loss to the Houston Astros. That knocked the Sox into second place in the AL East, a half-game behind Tampa Bay, which downed Pittsburgh, 4-3.

The sagging Sox, who dropped the last two games of the season’s final interleague series in the Astros’ final at-bat, fell out of first place for the first time since June 3, when they also trailed the Rays by a half-game.

“This series right now is the biggest series for that franchise,” Julio Lugo, a former Ray, said.

From Rob Bradford of the Boston Herald:

The fight of the Red Sox young 2008 lives begins today, and it has nothing to do about bench-clearing brawls, retaliation or fiery salvos thrown from one clubhouse to another.
As much as it might hurt, you might want to avert your attention from donnybrook-related matters for the moment.

The starting gun for the race for first place in the American League East is being fired at Tropicana Field tonight and, despite the perception of many New Englanders on their way to St. Petersburg, Fla., nobody will be living the life of the longshot this time around.

Flash-in-the-pan status has left the Rays’ anything-but-morbid building. Look at today’s standings for further proof.

“I think it will be about two teams that are in first place that are battling, and that’s what it needs to be about,” Red Sox closer Jonathan Papelbon said. “Hopefully we’ll be able to play the game and move on. I think the media will take it as that, two teams that are battling for first-place once the games start going. . . . Whatever happens, happens. It will all play out.”

The final words of Papelbon’s analysis suggest he hasn’t totally let go of the tension between the Rays and the Sox that has continued to linger since June 5. But the owner of the most pointed comments of the past few weeks also has come to understand the task at hand.

“What I’ve said has been said, whoop-dee-do,” he said. “What I’ve said has been said. We’ve got to move on and play the games.” …

The Red Sox’ tact has been, and will continue to be, that of a team with permanent membership into the “been there, done that” club. When you live with at least 18 of these must-win scenarios built into the schedule thanks to the presence of those Yankees, pre-Fourth of July showdowns don’t elicit extra hours of advance scouting meetings.

“To be totally honest, and I know it sounds cliche, but it’s just another series,” Papelbon said. “Yeah, we have extracurricular stuff going on, but it is just another series.”

If the Red Sox approached it any other way, that would truly be news. (See Papelbon’s post-fight comments.)

Yet, while the Sox can afford to worry about themselves, their fans might want to pay close attention to the baseball players dressed in blue and white who aren’t punching, yelling or poking. It might just be the one pinstripe-free team worth following.

“It will definitely be strange for me to see it,” said Red Sox catcher Kevin Cash, a former Ray. “For the people there, it will be second to none. When I was there we had lost around 11 in a row at this time of year. It was a grind in June when it’s supposed to be a grind in August and September. I guess things have changed.”

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