Schedule could narrow gap between Rays, Red Sox

Tampa Bay has taken charge in the AL East.

But Boston is primed to make a run.

The Red Sox gave the Rays first-hand notice this week. They finished off a three-game sweep in Tampa on Wednesday night, a payback for the Rays four-game sweep at Fenway Park back in April.

Boston, however, has changed its Sox from that team that stumbled into May by being swept in a series against Baltimore, of all teams, and falling to a season-worst three games below .500 (11-14).

And they are about to embark on a three-week stretch which will either validate their claims to contending in the AL East or lead to an early obituary on their season.

It’s great that David Ortiz has put the demands for his retirement on hold, rebounding from an awful April (.143, one home run, four RBIs and 21 strikeouts in 56 at-bats) to a devastating May (.368, nine home runs, 23 RBI and 20 strikeouts in 68 at-bats).

It’s a lift for Jon Lester to reaffirm his ace potential, overcoming a season that began with a three-start fiasco (0-2, 15 earned runs, 16 innings) to go 5-0 in his last seven starts while compiling a 1.45 ERA. He’s allowed more than one run just twice in those seven starts, and more than two runs once.

Most of all, however, the schedule maker is finally an ally.

This weekend the Red Sox embark on a 20-game stretch in which they have 13 games at Fenway Park, and only three games against a team with a winning record — Philadelphia, which comes to Boston to kickoff the June segment of inter-league play.

The Rays, meanwhile, host the disappointing White Sox for four games this weekend, and then face a stretch of 19 in a row against teams with winning records, including road trips that take them to Toronto and Texas next week, and then Atlanta and Florida later on.

 

Apathy in Tampa Bay

 

Life on the road isn’t all bad for Tampa Bay, which is 19-5 outside the Tropicana Dome. But then it’s not like the Rays have massive crowds supporting them at home. A team that would have nightly sellouts anywhere but the state of Florida, considering the excitement of the games they play, Tampa has managed only four crowds in excess of 30,000, two of which showed up for the Yankees, who were in town for a weekend series in which only 94,366 tickets were sold. Yes, there is a valid concern about the viability of the Tampa Bay area if there isn’t enough of a fan base to support a team as talented as the Rays.

 

Position switch for prospect?

 

No doubt Bryce Harper will be the top pick in the draft next month. The youthful junior-college player – he skipped his final two years of high school to become eligible for the draft this year – has tremendous offensive skills. Odds, however, are that he will wind up at a corner infield or corner outfield position. There is concern that he flinches when receiving the ball at the amateur level, a problem that could be a bigger issue as he catches more consistently dominating pitchers in pro ball.

Harper, however, runs well enough and is a good enough athlete that he should be able to convert to a corner position – most likely the outfield, although he has the skill set to play third. Washington, however, has the No. 1 pick in the draft, and is pretty well set at third for the long term with Ryan Zimmerman.

Kansas City, meanwhile, is focused on catching, and there are growing indications the Royals, who select fourth, are focusing on Yasmani Grandal of the University of Miami. The Cuban native who moved to Miami when he was 11 has been the Hurricanes' starting catcher since his freshman season. A switch-hitter, Grandal’s stock soared this year when he adjusted his approach at the plate to use all fields.

 

Stats pack

 

Detroit has overcome a deficit of five or more runs to win four times this season. The 29 other major-league teams have a combined total of five wins in games in which they trailed by five or more runs. … NL teams had 22 wins in the 42 games of inter-league play last weekend, at least a moral victory in light of the AL domination in recent seasons. The stats, however, don’t add up. The AL had a higher batting average (.280-.258) and lower earned-run average (4.25-4.74) despite fewer wins. … Early returns are that leaving the Metrodome wasn’t as big a blow for the Minnesota Twins as some thought. The Twins, with back-to-back losses to the Yankees this week, lost a home series for the first time in the eight they have played this year. And then there are the Milwaukee Brewers, 5-15 at Miller Park, but 13-13 on the road.

 

SECOND THOUGHTS

 

The Rays are reminiscent of the Kansas City Royals teams that made seven postseason appearances in a 10-year stretch from 1976-85, advancing to the World Series in 1980 and winning the World Series in 1985. They are an athletic, balanced offense that creates constant pressure on opposing defenses, and have solid, not stellar, pitching. … The Yankees are a nightmare because they take full advantage of 27 outs every game. … A memorable matchup is on tap for Memorial Day: Rockies’ Ubaldo Jimenez against Giants’ Tim Lincecum at AT&T Park on Monday afternoon.

 

FINAL WORD

 

Kelly Johnson of Arizona and Dan Uggla of Florida, both second basemen, are tied, along with Arizona third baseman Mark Reynolds, for the NL lead in home runs at 12. There have been only 28 seasons in which a second baseman has hit 30 or more home runs, including four players last year (Aaron Hill, Toronto, 36, and Chase Utley of Philadelphia, Ian Kinsler of Texas and Uggla with 31 apiece).

The all-time record for home runs in a season by a second baseman is 42, shared by Rogers Hornsby of the 1922 St. Louis Cardinals and Davey Johnson of Atlanta in 1973. Johnson actually hit 43 that season, but one of those was as a pinch-hitter. The total of 42 home runs ranks tied for 181st on the all-time single-season home-run list.

The last second baseman to lead a league in home runs was Ryne Sandberg of the Cubs in 1990. Bobby Grich shared the AL lead with three other players when he hit 22 in strike-shortened 1981. Other second basemen to earn home-run titles were Hornsby with the Cardinals in 1922 and 1925, and Nap LaJoie with the Philadelphia A’s in 1901.