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Red Sox series already has a 'must-win' feel for Tampa Bay Rays

MINNEAPOLIS — Manager Joe Maddon said he expects this weekend's series against the Red Sox at Tropicana Field to be "exciting" and "electric."

Even though it's early in the season, and they always preach playing every game the same way, make no mistake: The Rays feel the four-game set that begins tonight will be important.

The Rays hope to make up some ground on the red-hot Red Sox, who have won 12 of 13 and are 61/2 games ahead of last-place Tampa Bay in the AL East.

"You don't want to build it up, but it is what it is, it's playing the Red Sox," LHP J.P. Howell said. "It's on, man. Obviously they're on a hot streak and we're battling, but at the same time it takes a good solid game to get a nice roll going."

Tampa Bay took two of three from the Red Sox in Fenway during the season-opening series, with the two going in opposite directions since.

"It's big anytime we play Boston," LF Carl Crawford. "We want to try to get as many as we can to catch up. … We always have confidence when we play at home. They've been playing well right now, so we don't think it's going to be easy. We have to try to play our game and hopefully we can come up with a couple wins."

UP TOP: Despite CF B.J. Upton's offensive struggles — he is on a 2-for-27 slide and hitting just .158 — Maddon said he has no plans to move him out of the leadoff spot, even on a temporary basis.

Maddon pointed to Upton's on-base percentage — now .304 — as a sign he's taking his walks and has a good eye, saying being nearly 150 points over his batting average is "phenomenal," and he is confident he'll break out of it soon.

"I think keeping him at the top, he's getting plenty of at-bats," Maddon said. "These are the situations I want him to work through, because when he gets that going, we get going."

QUICK FIX: Tonight's starter, RHP Matt Garza, has lost his past two outings (0-2, 8.74 ERA), one in which he admitted being too amped up and another in which he said he was too stubborn in sticking with his two-seamer. Maddon said other than maintaining his emotions, he'd like to see the hard-throwing Garza make those midgame adjustments he did so well last season as opposed to "when it's over, retrospectively, saying, 'I should have done this.' "

"I think the really good athletes, when things aren't going well, are able to recognize and can change within the next two pitches or the next at-bat or couple seconds or minute," Maddon said. "That's what (Garza) was doing well last year. When he was really going right, he was able to make those in-game adjustments. And he's very capable."

ONE SPEED: One Twin who particularly impressed Maddon was CF Denard Span, 25, a Tampa Catholic product who made his first opening day roster as Minnesota's speedy leadoff hitter. Span is hitting .321, showing off his speed with an infield single in Tuesday's winning ninth-inning rally. Span went 3-for-5 on Wednesday with two singles and a triple. "I like him; he's a real good player," Maddon said. "One thing I like about him is he plays hard all the time. I noticed that last year, and became a big fan of his on a blooper he turned into a double. He's got one speed and it's all out, and I really like that about him."

MISCELLANY: DH Pat Burrell returned to the lineup after missing Tuesday's game with stiffness in his neck. Switch-hitting utilityman Ben Zobrist was given the start in rightfield over Gabe Gross against RHP Nick Blackburn. … OF Fernando Perez will be reading to children at 10:30 this morning as part of the Opening Doors for Children program at the law offices of Tampa's Holland & Knight (100 Tampa St. N).

Joe Smith can be reached at joesmith@sptimes.com.

Red Sox series already has a 'must-win' feel for Tampa Bay Rays 04/29/09 [Last modified: Thursday, April 30, 2009 7:19am]
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