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05/23/10 5:39 PM ET

Confident AL beasts collide at the Trop

The Red Sox -- and the rest of the American League -- are looking up at the Rays. Tampa Bay has played incredibly consistent baseball over the past few weeks and will go into its Monday series opener with Boston parked at an impressive milestone -- the best 44-game start since the 2001 Seattle Mariners, who also started 32-12 before eventually posting the best record in AL history that season (116-46).

And if the Rays are going to continue on that torrid pace, they'll have to beat the Red Sox, a team that has proven itself comfortable against the best in the business. Each of Boston's past six opponents have had winning records, and the past two -- much like Tampa Bay -- led its respective divisions. The Red Sox have gone 9-7 in that stretch, and they're itching to test themselves against the Rays.

Tampa Bay, which has won seven of its past eight games, swept a four-game set from the Red Sox at Fenway Park earlier this season. The Rays hit just .204 in that series, but 16 of their 29 hits went for extra bases and they outscored Boston 24-9. Boston manager Terry Francona got a good look at Tampa Bay in that series, and he has reason to believe that the club is confident.

"For one thing, they have experience of going through it," he said. "In '08, they got on that run and it was probably the first time they had success. You could see it kind of building. I think coming into this year -- and I don't need to speak for Joe Maddon or anyone on their team -- but it looked like they expected to be good. We saw enough of them this spring where we were thinking they were gonna be good."

The Red Sox will meet the Rays with a modest head of momentum, having held Philadelphia to three runs over the past two games. Clay Buchholz will take the ball in the series opener, and he'll be matched up another intriguing young arm in Tampa Bay's Wade Davis. Buchholz has won two straight starts and four of his past five decisions, and strangely enough, the right-hander doesn't have any no-decisions.

Davis has completed six innings in four of his first eight starts, and he'd held the opposition to three earned runs or fewer six times. Davis, just 24 years old, is indicative of how far the Rays have come in recent years. Tampa Bay doesn't just have to wait on the promise of prospects anymore. Now, it has one of the best-stocked teams in the Majors and a wave of talented youngsters biding their time.

"They're athletic, they catch the ball, they have different options," said Francona. "[Ben] Zobrist doing what he does almost gives them an extra player. He's a switch-hitter who can play multiple positions. They have depth, they have pitching. [Rafael] Soriano steadies their bullpen. They have an end in sight and it allows them to match up and once they get to the ninth, they can sit back and see what happens."

Red Sox: Ortiz-Youk punch back in play
The heart of Boston's batting order has been incredibly hot, with David Ortiz and Kevin Youkilis carrying a good part of the load. Ortiz got a day off against Roy Halladay on Sunday, but he's hitting .351 (20-for-57) with seven home runs and 18 RBIs in May. Youkilis is even hotter, hitting .397 (25-for-63) in May. Boston's first baseman leads the Major Leagues in walks (35) and the AL in runs (37).

Still, despite the individual success, make no mistake about it: This is a dangerous lineup from top to bottom.

"They've got [Jacoby] Ellsbury back, and that makes a huge difference for them," said Maddon. "I never doubted for a second that they would come back. ... They had some problems early. [Now] Papi's swinging the bat, [Jason] Varitek has had a bit of a rebirth. [Dustin] Pedroia is the heart and soul. They've got it all going on with their pitching and everything else. None of it is surprising."

Rays: Zobrist carrying the load in May
Zobrist continued his May surge on Sunday, going 2-for-4 and drilling his second homer of the season. The combination infielder-outfielder has hit safely in 11 of his past 12 games and is batting .384 (28-for-73) during the month. Only one other Ray -- left fielder Carl Crawford -- is hitting at least .300 for the month, but Tampa Bay is proving resilient and capable of extremely strong pitching.

They're not alone in that latter element, but the Rays have taken their working components and turned it into complete success.

"Toronto is playing well, which makes the division even more difficult," said Maddon, gauging another AL East rival and an emerging trend in the league. "Then with the White Sox, you've got really good pitching. ... You're really seeing a renaissance of starting pitching in our league. We see pretty good starting pitching against us every night. And I know we're doing the same to the other team."

Worth noting
Tampa Bay has allowed two earned runs or fewer 25 times this season and holds a 22-3 record under those circumstances. ... The Rays have been successful on their past 13 steal attempts against Boston. And lately, they've been running wild. Tampa Bay has 46 stolen bases in the past 25 games and has only been caught four times over that span. ... The Red Sox are 15-5 when they score first and 4-6 when their opponent draws first blood. ... Boston is 19-4 when it scores at least five runs and 2-11 when it scores three runs or fewer.

This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.


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