Best record in the majors, dominant at home and on the verge of sweeping their biggest series of the season. The Tampa Bay Rays are leaving no doubt that they are absolutely for real.
The Rays look to complete their second three-game sweep this season of the Boston Red Sox when the top teams in the AL East meet at Tropicana Field on Wednesday night.While improvement was expected this season from the Rays (51-32), they have far exceeded all expectations. Tampa Bay, coming off a 96-loss season in 2007, owns the best record in the majors and extended its lead in the East to 2 1/2 games with a 3-1 win over the Red Sox (50-36) on Tuesday."It's still a long road, and we have to take it day to day," Tampa Bay manager Joe Maddon said.Matt Garza pitched seven strong innings and Grant Balfour got the last four outs for his second save as the Rays won for the seventh time in eight games. They are 16-7 since getting swept at Boston from June 3-5."We go out there against Boston fully expecting to win," Balfour said. "We're not shocked to win a ball game. It's really no surprise to us."Tampa Bay entered this series having lost six straight to the Red Sox, but has held one of the majors' most potent offenses to five runs and a .212 (14-for-66) batting average in the first two games.The home team has won 12 straight games in this series.Boston, which led the East for 25 straight days before Sunday's loss to Houston, has dropped four in a row, one shy of its season high. The Red Sox are struggling offensively without injured slugger David Ortiz in the middle of the lineup."I don't really care to talk about who we're missing. We showed up to win and they outplayed us," Red Sox manager Terry Francona said. "That's what matters to us. ... Regardless of who you have out there, you either win or you don't."Balfour was thrust into a save situation because regular closer Troy Percival was placed on the 15-day disabled list after injuring his left hamstring in the ninth inning of Monday night's win.Scott Kazmir (7-3, 2.28 ERA) starts for Tampa Bay, hoping to provide his team with a longer outing than he did recently. The left-hander won for the first time in four starts despite lasting only five innings Friday in a 10-5 victory at Pittsburgh. He didn't allow a hit until Freddy Sanchez led off the fourth with a homer, but went on to surrender four runs in the inning.Kazmir hasn't pitched past the sixth inning in any of his last three starts after doing that in each of his previous seven appearances.He lost his only start this season against the Red Sox, giving up four runs and six hits over four innings in a 7-3 defeat at Fenway Park on May 4. Kazmir is 6-6 with a 2.82 ERA in 18 starts versus Boston.Red Sox second baseman Dustin Pedroia is 10-for-18 (.556) against the lefty.Boston counters with Daisuke Matsuzaka (9-1, 3.21), who is 0-3 with a 5.40 ERA in his last four starts -- all last season -- against the Rays.After allowing seven runs in one-plus inning in his previous start -- his first following a three-week stint on the disabled list due to a mild strain in his rotator cuff -- the right-hander bounced back by throwing five scoreless innings Friday in a 6-1 victory at Houston.Matsuzaka has been very good this season on the road, going 4-0 with a 2.20 ERA in six starts.