MLB

Preview: Rays welcome Red Sox to town for 4 games

TV: FOX Sports Sun

Time: Pregame coverage begins at 6:30 p.m.

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ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- The chance to build positive momentum entering the All-Star break is always a goal, but the Tampa Bay Rays will have their hands full trying to handle the surging Boston Red Sox over the next four games.

The Rays (44-42), persistent in staying above .500 as a surprise playoff contender, are within a half-game of the second wild card in the American League as they host the Red Sox (49-36) beginning Thursday.

Tampa Bay is 3-4 vs. Boston this season -- all at Fenway Park -- and is 5 1/2 games behind Boston in the American League East. Eight of the remaining 11 meetings take place at Tropicana Field.

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Tampa's 7-3 loss to the Cubs in Chicago on Wednesday resulted in a split of the two-game interleague series, and it showed what remains the biggest weakness for the Rays: An inconsistent bullpen, overburdened with trying to offset shorter outings by starting pitching.

Starter Blake Snell pitched five shutout innings, but he was done after 97 pitches, leaving the bullpen with 12 outs and a 3-0 lead. It didn't go well as Erasmo Ramirez gave up a three-run homer in the sixth inning and the bullpen yielded seven runs in three innings.

"If we're up 3-0 with four innings to play, we shouldn't be losing games 7-3," said manager Kevin Cash, whose bullpen ranks 23th in baseball with a 4.52 ERA, compared to his starters ranking sixth (4.06).

One pleasant surprise in the rotation has been rookie right-hander Jacob Faria, who has started his career with five straight quality starts. He is 3-0 with a 2.23 ERA entering Thursday's start against Boston. Faria has 35 strikeouts against only five walks, and Tampa Bay is 4-1 in his starts.

Boston will counter with left-hander Chris Sale, who is 11-3 with a 2.61 ERA, including two gems against the Rays. Sale went seven innings in both starts against Tampa Bay -- allowing one run and three hits in the first and three runs and two hits in the second. He struck out 12 batters each time.

Sale, though, is a mere mortal against the Rays in his career, with a 6-4 record and 3.52 ERA in 12 games (10 starts).

The Rays have gotten a boost at the top of their lineup from center fielder Mallex Smith, who has filled in admirably with Kevin Kiermaier on the disabled list at least until August. Smith had four hits Wednesday and scored all three of the Rays' runs.

Boston had won six straight games and eight out of nine before an 8-2 loss in Texas on Wednesday. The Red Sox, who had scored an average of 8.8 runs during their winning streak, were limited to three hits and didn't collect one until the sixth inning.

Red Sox second baseman Dustin Pedroia (knee) was lifted in the sixth inning Wednesday, and manager John Farrell said they'll keep an eye on him in the upcoming series.

"He has some days where it's going to be a little cranky, and today was one of them," Farrell told Masslive.com. "And where we were in that game, we just wanted to give him a half a game to continue to get some treatment. But that's something we've got to monitor."