By the time the Red Sox leave Tropicana Field Sunday evening, they could be in the thick of the playoff hunt — or out of contention.
With just five weeks left in the season, the Sox are 5 1/2 games behind the Yankees and Rays in the American League East (six in the loss column). Every game takes on added significance, especially these three against Tampa Bay.
“We have to go to Tampa, try to at least win the series,’’ said third baseman Adrian Beltre. “I think we’re trying to go in there looking for the sweep so we can get a chance to [get closer].
“They’re playing really good baseball, Tampa and the Yankees, so we have to try to do our stuff and win games and hopefully we can get some breaks. It’s been tough because they’re not budging.’’
The Sox were within a half-game of first place July 2, but then lost four straight. Since July 9, they’ve hovered between five and eight games behind.
“It’s very, very important, obviously,’’ Tim Wakefield said. “That’s one of the teams we’re chasing. It would have been nice to get a win [Wednesday night] to take a little bit of momentum going down there, but we’ve played good baseball down there at the Trop.
“Hopefully we can gain some ground on them.’’
Both teams had yesterday off, meaning the bullpens will be rested for three very good pitching matchups. Jon Lester, whom the Sox pushed back from Wednesday, will face David Price in tonight’s opener. That’s followed by Clay Buchholz opposite Matt Garza tomorrow, and John Lackey goes against James Shields Sunday.
“It’s a pretty big series,’’ David Ortiz said. “Tampa’s been playing very well, and we’re right behind them. Try to go out there and play some good games.’’
If they don’t, their chances of gaining a postseason berth could disappear by the time they head to Baltimore Sunday night.
The reason Lester was moved back was the state of Daisuke Matsuzaka’s
back. Matsuzaka, who originally was scheduled to start tonight, felt stiff when he went out to throw Wednesday afternoon. A team source said Matsuzaka’s back is better, though it wasn’t known when he would make his next start. Matsuzaka has been on the disabled list twice this season, because of a neck strain and a right forearm strain . . . The Sox met with Hideki Okajima
in Boston after the reliever pitched in three games for Pawtucket. Okajima will be with the team in Tampa, but it was not known whether he’ll be activated this weekend. Okajima, who gave up five runs and six hits in 2 1/3 innings in Triple A, has been a culprit in the Sox’ bullpen struggles. The lefthander has a 5.85 ERA in 32 1/3 innings. “Before a series, we look at who matches up with who, and his matchups are inevitably awesome across the board, because he’s had so much success in his first couple of years here,’’ manager Terry Francona
said. “Then when he goes out and starts getting hit around a little bit, yeah. He was a huge factor because he was lefthanded, but he can face righties.’’ Lefthanded batters are hitting .338 against Okajima this season, righthanders .360.
Issue should pass
There are unlikely to be any suspensions or fines stemming from the ejections of Beltre and Francona Wednesday night, according to a source with knowledge of the situation. The pair were tossed by rookie umpire Dan Bellino
, who was taking his turn behind the plate . . . Both Jarrod Saltalamacchia
and Eric Patterson
joined Pawtucket yesterday and are scheduled to begin their rehab stints tonight . . . According to a major league source, the Sox placed Josh Beckett
, Lackey, and Manny Delcarmen
on trade waivers yesterday.
Nick Cafardo of the Globe staff contributed to this report; Amalie Benjamin can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @amaliebenjamin.
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