Rays ready for big series in Boston
Tampa Bay (85-56) at Boston (84-58), Monday, 7:05 p.m. ET
TORONTO -- During the series-opening games of his team's two visits to Fenway Park this season, Rays manager Joe Maddon has paid specific attention to the Green Monster in left field.
On the large wall sits a scoreboard that displays the standings of the American League East division. And in the first games of both occasions in which the Rays have traveled to the ballpark, the words "Tampa Bay" have been listed in the upper half of the standings.
When the Rays begin a three-game series with the Red Sox on Monday, they again will see their name high in the standings of the division -- this time in first place.
"To this point, we would have earned the right to be at the top of that board," said Maddon. "Being the fact that [the Red Sox] are world champs at that hallowed ballpark, to be able to sit with your name there is really significant, and I like it.
"I like seeing our name there, and I'd like to keep it there for many years to come."
The one problem for the Rays, though, is that at the conclusion of their two series in Boston, the home team has managed to knock them lower in the standings. The reason for this is the Rays are winless in their six games at Fenway this season. If that does not change this time around, Tampa Bay will depart Boston as the second-place team in the AL East.
The Rays head into this series having lost five of their previous six games, including a weekend sweep at the hands of the Blue Jays, leaving Tampa Bay with just a 1 1/2-game lead over the Sox.
"We really do need to win a game or two in Boston," said Maddon. "I've said that from the very beginning. It would be nice to get a win up there, possibly two, whatever -- just [to eliminate] the mental hurdle that you have to overcome by winning on that form of enemy territory -- which is difficult for a lot of teams, not just us."
Although the Rays have beaten the Red Sox in all six of their games at Tropicana Field, playing in Boston has been a different story. At Fenway, the Rays have been outscored 45-16 in their six losses.
"They're a good home team," said Rays outfielder Eric Hinske, who played with Boston for 1 1/2 seasons. "They definitely have a home-field advantage with the fans there in Boston. We haven't played very well this year in that place."
Although the series is crucial in the Rays' quest for their first playoff berth in franchise history, many of the players quickly will point to the fact that the Rays also have three games against the Red Sox from Sept. 15-17 at home in St. Petersburg.
Though it may be hard to do given the situation, the Rays insist they are trying to alleviate much of the pressure of the series by treating the contests as regular games.
"We understand that it is important," said first baseman Carlos Pena. "However, we try to not spend too much energy or try not to make a big deal out of it, because what are we going to do, play harder?
"It really is just another game, even though common sense tells us that we know what the standings are. But I think our intent is to try to play it down as much as possible and try to play our game."
Pena said he and Maddon have tried to instill this thought in the younger players on the team.
"I want us to treat all of this one game at a time," Maddon said. "Truly with that kind of intent, and then I'm sure once we get there, you're going to see a bunch of guys totally relaxed and playing their normal game."
In many ways this year has been a Cinderella season for the Rays. The same club that had the worst record in baseball in 2007 has now found itself at the top spot of one of the strongest divisions. Maddon believes the pressure accompanying such a situation might not necessarily be a bad thing.
"This is uncharted territory for us as an organization -- going into this series at this time of the year with all this stuff at stake," said the manager. "I think it's fabulous, actually, and if anybody feels as though there is more pressure applied to it, that's wonderful. Because when you play with lack of pressure, that means you're going home at the end of the month."Pitching matchup
TB: RHP Edwin Jackson (11-9, 4.07 ERA)
Jackson endured his ninth loss of the season on Wednesday night, going a season-low 3 1/3 innings and exiting with a 6-1 deficit. The right-hander was tagged by the Yankees for 10 hits, and he left after tossing 70 pitches, including 46 for strikes. The flamethrower is at his best when he is locating his 97-mph fastball, which sets up an array of other pitches, particularly his slider. He is 2-3 with a 5.70 ERA in seven career starts against the Red Sox. BOS: LHP Jon Lester (13-5, 3.37 ERA)
Lester continued his dominance against the Orioles in 2008 on Tuesday. He improved his season record against Baltimore to 3-0 in four starts while harboring a 2.16 ERA. The good news for Boston and its young lefty is that he's also rather strong against Tampa Bay. Lester is 2-0 with a 1.46 ERA in two starts against the leaders of the AL East. Tidbits
With their shutout loss on Sunday, the Rays have been blanked six times this year. ... Rays center fielder B.J. Upton has collected a hit in eight of his past 10 games. During that span, he has hit .390 (16-for-41) with three doubles, five RBIs and six walks. Tickets
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Tuesday: Rays (Scott Kazmir, 11-6, 2.99) at Red Sox (Daisuke Matsuzaka, 16-2, 2.88), 7:05 p.m. ET
Wednesday: Rays (Andy Sonnanstine, 13-7, 4.66) at Red Sox (Josh Beckett, 12-9, 4.20), 7:05 p.m. ET
David Singh is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.