The Boston Red Sox kick off their most crucial series of the season to date when they welcome the Tampa Bay Rays for a three-game set beginning Tuesday.
Boston returns home from a 2-8 road trip that began with three straight losses at Tampa Bay. Entering the trip, the Red Sox held a 1 1/2-game lead in the American League East standings; they are now four games back of the Rays with the New York Yankees and Toronto Blue Jays on their heels.
"We're still in a good spot, let's be honest," Boston manager Alex Cora said after a crushing 9-8 loss to Toronto on Sunday. "It was a tough road trip, but we'll go home and dominate at home."
While the Red Sox have struggled, the Rays have won eight of their last 10 to gain separation in the division. Tampa Bay kicked off a nine-game road trip with a three-game sweep at the Baltimore Orioles over the weekend.
"This has been a pretty resilient group," noted skipper Kevin Cash. "They can bounce back from tough series, tough games and tough starts. They continue to show that."
Rookie right-hander Luis Patino (2-3, 4.42 ERA) will face the Red Sox for the first time in Tuesday's series opener. Boston will counter with left-hander Eduardo Rodriguez (8-6, 5.33).
The Red Sox have reinforcements around the corner with the return of ace Chris Sale from Tommy John surgery set for Saturday, but the team understands the urgency it needs to show this week. Taking at least two of three against Tampa Bay puts the division lead back in sight, while the opposite buries the hosts in a deeper hole.
"We got games before (Sale) pitches," Cora said. "We're going to take care of business first. We got a tough series against the Rays."
Boston could be without outfielder Alex Verdugo (paternity list) a couple more days, while J.D. Martinez and Jarren Duran returned from the COVID-19 injured list Sunday. Reliable right-handed reliever Hirokazu Sawamura exited the finale against the Blue Jays with right elbow tightness and will be re-evaluated.
The Rays have had their fair share of pitching injuries of late, with righty reliever DJ Johnson joining the list after feeling a "crack" in his right shoulder during an appearance Sunday. He has been sent back to the Tampa Bay area for evaluation.
"We have depth, but we are concerned about every single one of our injuries," Cash said. "They are gut-wrenching when they happen. We need some of the guys to get back from the IL."
Patino was steady in his last outing for the Rays, allowing three runs over five innings against the Seattle Mariners in a loss. He has yet to pitch more than six innings during a start in his career.
Rodriguez held the Detroit Tigers scoreless over five innings last week, punching out a season-high 10 but walking four. The southpaw has issued nine free passes over his last 9 1/3 innings.
Rodriguez is 1-3 with a 5.33 ERA in 10 starts lifetime against Tampa Bay.