Rays have reason for cheer heading to Boston

Published Apr. 12, 2012 8:30 p.m. ET

It's all a matter of how you choose to view it.

If the Tampa
Bay Rays had known that they'd leave the chilly and challenging confines
of Comerica Park on Thursday with a 4-2 record, tied for the AL East
lead six games into the season, they'd have no doubt been thrilled.

the Rays had known that one of those wins would come against Detroit's
2012 AL Cy Young Award winner Justin Verlander — with a ninth-inning
knockout punch, no less — they'd have been ecstatic.

Just remember where they stood after six games last year: winless.

of that changes the fact that the Rays could have taken two of three
from the Tigers (5-1) on the first leg of their 10-day, three-city road
trip — a swing that takes them now to Boston for a four-game set
starting Friday at 2:05 p.m.

The Motown rubber match was certainly
there for them to win. But an inability to cash in early when they had
MLB newcomer Drew Smyly on the ropes several times — most notably when
they loaded the bases against him with none out in the first and didn't
score — came back to haunt them. And the Tigers' formidable lineup
eventually caught up with starter Jeff Niemann and the Tampa Bay
bullpen, as the game spun away in a 7-2 Detroit triumph.

The Rays
got did get some timely hitting — another homer from red-hot returnee
Carlos Pena, his third of the year, and a single to raise his batting
average to .429; and a double and single from Evan Longoria to raise his
scorching average to .476. They just didn't get enough of it on this
day, with their fourth-fifth-sixth spots going 0 for 12 along with 0 for
7 in the leadoff and ninth holes.


They got some strong pitching
early from Niemann, who blanked the Tigers on two hits through four
innings. But after a leadoff walk to Alex Avila to start the fifth, the
tall Texan unraveled in a three-run outburst. And the recently sturdy
Rays bullpen couldn't contain the damage after that — particularly Jake
McGee, whose reliance on his one big pitch, a high-90s fastball, has
been getting him in trouble against good hitters who wait on one they

"They beat us late twice; we beat them late once in this
three-game series," manager Joe Maddon said. "They're good. They grind
out the at-bats. … I thought we were playing a really good game, and all
of a sudden it kind of got away. … They're relentless and they're a
good ballclub. We left too many people on base ourselves. We had a
chance to really do some damage early on against Smyly."

addition to the first-inning threat that fizzled, the Rays stranded
Longoria at second after his one-out double followed Pena's homer in the
third, and couldn't score in the fourth after catcher Jose Lobaton
singled and Elliot Johnson walked in the fourth.

"It was all there
for us to turn that game in our favor," Maddon added. "We chose not to
and the tipping point could have been the first inning."

overall, the Rays' skipper — one win shy of his 500th victory — said he
was he encouraged overall by the series: "Listen, I'm happy with us.
We're 4-2 after six against two very formidable opponents. I'll take it.
I think we played good baseball. That got away from us late today, but
overall in the first six games of the season, we played well. And if we
play like that all year, I'll take it, because I know the number of
victories necessary will be there."

There certainly have been
plenty of positives on the trip. Even without his best stuff, rookie
Matt Moore held a 2-1 lead with two outs in the seventh in the opener
Tuesday afternoon, played in bone-chilling temperatures and snow
flurries. The Tigers tied it late on a solo homer by Austin Jackson off
Moore, then pulled away when McGee allowed a double to Miguel Cabrera
and RBI single to Prince Fielder in the eighth en route to a Tigers 5-2

Then came the events of Wednesday, when Tampa Bay entered the
ninth inning with just one hit against Verlander and three outs away
from a 2-0 defeat. What the Rays pulled off in that one — that stirring
four-run comeback against one of the game's elite pitchers — changed the
complexion of the trip in a way that could serve them well
psychologically both in Boston and Toronto.

The victory provided a
major confidence boost for a team playing without its starting
centerfielder, B.J. Upton (rehabbing his back for another week in the
minors), designated hitter Luke Scott (out since Sunday with a tight
hamstring) and last season's unofficial closer Kyle Farnsworth. But in
Farnsworth's absence, Fernando Rodney picked up his third save of the
season, looking like a worthy alternative for now and perhaps a valuable
set-up man for Farnsworth once he returns.

Wednesday's win built
on the three-game sweep of the Yankees last weekend and rekindled the
never-say-die aura that carried the Rays through the stretch and into
the 2011 playoffs.

They might just as easily have succumbed to a
Verlander one-hit shutout and ultimately departed Detroit with three
losses. And it would have felt a whole lot different heading into Fenway
Park to face the 1-5 Red Sox — a team that certainly would like to pay
back the Rays for edging them in the wild card race on the final night
of the regular season.

On the flip side, the series also
demonstrated that Tampa Bay has some issues to resolve. Sean Rodriguez
is playing excellent defense at shortstop, but he's not producing at the
plate (1 for 15, .067). Last year's starter, Reid Brignac, is 1 for 10
and the Rays badly need more offense out of the shortstop spot. Johnson,
playing infield and outfield, picked up his first hit Thursday, but
he's still batting .143 (1 for 7) as a fill-in.

There's no
question the Rays need Scott in the batting order. He took BP Thursday
and Maddon says Scott could be a game-time decision Friday in Boston's
home opener. Considering his 3-for-4 performance in an 8-6 win over New
York last Saturday, highlighted by a three-run double, his bat could
come in handy.

The Rays do have recent history on their side as
they prepare for the Red Sox. They were 12-6 against them last year and
won eight of the last nine meetings. In addition, they were 7-2 at
Fenway, only the third team in the last 30 years to win seven
regular-season games in one season there (along with the 1988 Blue Jays
and 2006 Yankees). Want more? The Rays held Boston to a team batting
average of .189, the Sox lowest average against an AL opponent since
1921. And over the past two seasons, Tampa Bay is 13-5 at Fenway, after a
dismal stretch of 28-74.

Left-hander David Price, coming off a
strong outing against the Yankees last Saturday, will start. The Red Sox
will go with righty Josh Beckett, who gave up seven hits and seven runs
in 4-2/3 innings last Saturday to Detroit.

The Red Sox, in fact,
started the season with three losses to the Tigers on the road: 3-2,
10-0 and 13-12 in an 11th-inning meltdown. They followed with a 4-2 win
at Toronto but lost the next two to the Jays, 7-3 and 3-1.

with a new manager, Bobby Valentine, the Red Sox have picked up where
they left off last season: in a general state of disarray.