Clay Buchholz returns; Red Sox-Rays series has a hint of autumn


Clay Buchholz throws a pitch
Clay Buchholz returns to the mound tonight against the Rays. (Jim Rogash/Getty Images)

It seems that every year the teams in direct competition for the division title face off in the final week of the season. After all, that would make sense, with schedules pairing off division rivals for almost the entirety of September. But this year – at least with the current standings – that will not be the case in the AL East. The first-place Boston Red Sox and the second-place Tampa Bay Rays square off in their final series of the year two and half weeks from the end of the season.

Two weeks ago, it looked like the Rays and Sox would go back and forth in leading the division. Now, the Rays have begun skidding, having lost seven of their last 10, and 11 of their last 15. They still have a hold on second place in the division and hold the second wild-card spot. The Rays aren’t the challenge to the Red Sox grip on first place they were just weeks ago. Seven and a half games separate them from another division title, and it’s not an easy climb to make. The Rays also are just a game and half above the surging Baltimore Orioles, who look like more of a threat to the Sox.

Regardless, the three-game series between the Red Sox and Rays that begins Tuesday night may be the last meeting of the two AL East powers, and it has all the makings of a playoff series.

Tuesday’s opener has the return of Red Sox ace Clay Buchholz, who will pitch for the first time since June 8. Clay Buchholz went on the disabled list with a bad neck and brought with him the best start to a season he’d ever had. Buchholz is 9-0 with an ERA of 1.71 and a WHIP of 1.02. He will face Rays ace David Price, who is 8-7 with 3.51 ERA and 1.12 WHIP in what has been a mostly underwhelming season.

Wednesday’s tilt features the struggling Ryan Dempster (8-9, 4.79 ERA) and the brilliant Alex Cobb (8-3, 2.99 ERA), and Thursday’s finale pits Jake Peavy (3-1, 3.55 ERA) against the underperforming Jeremy Hellickson (11-8, 5.04 ERA).

The pitching matchups are interesting to watch for Sox fans, who may be seeing their last of Ryan Dempster. Buchholz’s return means at least one missed start for Felix Doubront, who hasn’t made it out of the fourth inning in his last two starts. With a three- or four-man rotation in the playoffs, both Doubront and Dempster could be headed to the bullpen.

Clay Buchholz, who will be on a tight pitch limit tonight, is another storyline to follow, as his performance down the stretch is crucial to the Red Sox World Series hopes.

Regardless of how the next two and half weeks affect the Rays and Red Sox playoff chances, the final series between the two clubs promises to have the atmosphere of fall baseball.

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