While the Boston Red Sox sit atop the AL East, they will have to hold off one of baseball's hottest teams over the next four days in order to maintain their lead.
The visiting Tampa Bay Rays try to keep rolling in Monday night's series opener against the Red Sox.
Tampa Bay (58-41) has outscored opponents 94-44 in going a major league-best 17-2 since June 29, climbing to within 1 1/2 games of Boston (60-40). The Rays have dropped nine of 12 to the Red Sox this year, but they are hoping to come out with a better effort in this pivotal division showdown.
"Big series, two very good teams, an AL East battle," Rays designated hitter Luke Scott said. "It's going to be some good games, a lot on the line."
Scott has played a big part in his team's recent success, going 18 for 47 (.383) with four home runs and 10 RBIs during a 13-game hitting streak. He belted a two-run homer Sunday as Tampa Bay beat Toronto 4-3 for its fifth straight victory. Evan Longoria and Kelly Johnson also went deep for the Rays, winners of seven of eight on the road.
"Baseball's such a unique game," manager Joe Maddon told MLB's official website. "The turns and twists are incredible. That's the game we had been losing earlier in the year. Now, we're winning that same game."
Boston took two of three from the New York Yankees over the weekend, including a thrilling 8-7 win in Sunday's finale. After hitting a three-run homer earlier in the game, Mike Napoli delivered a walkoff shot with two outs in the 11th.
"He's a dangerous batter," catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia said of Napoli, who is second on the team with 13 homers and 62 RBIs. "He can do damage at any point in the game."
The Red Sox, who improved to 27-8 when Napoli drives in at least one run, have hit .311 while winning 20 of 26 at home since May 24, baseball's second-best record over that stretch.
Boston appears to have a difficult matchup in store against Matt Moore (13-3, 3.44 ERA), who is tied for the major league wins lead and pitched a scoreless inning in Tuesday's All-Star game. The left-hander has won each of his last five starts while compiling a 1.91 ERA and striking out 40 in 33 innings.
Moore allowed three runs, three hits and struck out 10 in 7 1-3 innings to beat Minnesota 4-3 on July 11 in his final outing before the break.
"Getting ahead early is big for me," he said. "When I do that, I can go to my other pitches and the game goes smoother."
While Moore posted a 6.57 ERA in losing both his starts versus Boston last year, he allowed three runs and three hits in six innings of a 5-3 victory May 14. Dustin Pedroia is 2 for 11 in their matchups, but David Ortiz is 5 for 10 with a homer and two doubles.
Boston counters with rookie Brandon Workman (0-0, 5.40), who took a no-hit bid into the seventh in a 3-2, 11-inning loss at Oakland on July 14. The right-hander gave up two runs, two hits and one walk in 6 1-3 innings, becoming the first Red Sox pitcher to allow three or fewer base runners in his first major league start since 1934.
"As well as he pitched against a very good team in Oakland - and we're going to have a team that's coming in here as hot as anyone in the game right now - the one thing that he does is he throws a lot of strikes," manager John Farrell said.
The Associated Press News Service
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