DETROIT — The Rays are aware of the difficult challenge ahead, hosting the red-hot Red Sox and former teammate LF Carl Crawford tonight through Thursday while coming off an exhausting 11-game road trip.
But while catching first-place Boston at its best — winners of nine straight games — on little rest is unenviable, Ben Zobrist put a different spin on it.
"We know that they've been real hot lately, and I think it's about time for them to lose a few games," Zobrist said, smiling. "It might be great timing."
It is just mid June, but Tampa Bay OF Matt Joyce said it's a "huge series," especially with the Rays trailing by 41/2 games in the American League East.
But they welcome the challenge.
"All right, well, let's go," LHP David Price said. "We're not going to back down from it. We're ready, we're up for the challenge. Let's see what we're about."
The Red Sox have racked up 35 runs in the past three games, led by AL batting and RBI leader 1B Adrian Gonzalez and AL player of the week OF Jacoby Ellsbury. "Hopefully they wasted all their runs the last week or so," Joyce said.
But the Rays have their top three starters going, RHP James Shields, RHP Jeremy Hellickson and Price, and manager Joe Maddon believes his team thrives on these division matchups.
"We are the defending American League East champions," Maddon said. "So let's see what happens."
LINING UP: Maddon said he kept Joyce out of the lineup for a second straight game because the Tigers were throwing a lefty in Phil Coke and because he wanted to give Joyce's sore left shoulder another day before the Red Sox series. LF Justin Ruggiano made his seventh straight start and again was in the No. 3 spot, getting two hits to extend his hitting streak to seven games. Joyce pinch-hit in the seventh.
STEPPING IN: RHP Alex Cobb was pleased with how he was able to minimize damage Monday, stranding runners in scoring position in four of the first five innings, and limit his walks (two). Maddon liked Cobb's composure and saw strides. "I saw a really good fastball command, that's what we had been talking about," Maddon said. "The changeup was extraordinary."
LIKE OLD SELF: LHP J.P. Howell knew the first few outings in his comeback from shoulder surgery could get rocky, and they were as he allowed 10 runs in his first five appearances.
But Howell has since rattled off three consecutive perfect outings, including his first save since September 2009.
"I talked to him after the tough start, and I encouraged him to stop being so pretty out there and just throw the ball and get people out," Maddon said.
DRAFT BREEZE: The Rays' second-round pick, Palmetto High OF Granden Goetzman, said he's going to sign at Tropicana Field tonight and catch the Red Sox game. "I'm excited to get my pro career going," he said. "It's going to be a good day."
MISCELLANY: RHP Jeff Niemann (lower back strain) will make his final rehab start tonight for Triple-A Durham. But with no off days for the Rays until June 23, Cobb will likely make one more big-league start before Niemann replaces him in the rotation. … Tickets are available in all categories for all three Red Sox games. … Bullpen coach Bobby Ramos flew home Sunday as he was sick, so assistant to the pitching coach Stan Boroski filled in for him Monday. … DH Johnny Damon set a club record by reaching base in his 38th straight game.
MINOR MATTERS: Class A Charlotte SS Hak-Ju Lee leads the Florida State League in hitting (.353) and on-base percentage (.430). Double-A Montgomery SS Tim Beckham, the top overall pick in 2008, is hitting .306 and is second in the Southern League with 50 runs.