ST. PETERSBURG — The Rays and Red Sox may not have much in common in terms of payrolls, stadiums and tradition.
But as Tampa Bay continues to praise Boston for how it has hung in the wild-card race — trailing the Rays by just 51/2 games — despite being ravaged by injuries, RHP James Shields made an interesting comparison.
Shields said the Red Sox are a little like the Rays' pennant-winning club of two seasons ago.
"They're kind of reminding me of how we won in 2008," Shields said. "We had a lot of injuries. I think every one of our position players at some point was injured that year. They're going through adversity, and the guys they brought up are stepping up and doing a good job. We definitely can't take them lightly."
The Red Sox are playing without former AL MVP Dustin Pedroia, 1B Kevin Youkilis and CF Jacoby Ellsbury. They've also dealt with injuries to RHP Josh Beckett and C Victor Martinez, among others. But they've had backups step up, including CFs Darnell McDonald and Ryan Kalish, who have made huge defensive plays the past two games.
Similarly, in 2008, the Rays made their spectacular and surprising run even with several regulars, including 3B Evan Longoria, 1B Carlos Peña, LF Carl Crawford and SS Jason Bartlett, spending time on the disabled list (as did then-closer Troy Percival).
When Shields was asked about drawing a parallel between this year's Red Sox and a Tampa Bay team that reached the World Series, he smiled.
"Hopefully, not that (far)," Shields said. "But they're hanging in there. They're doing what they need to do to win ball games. They've got a great pitching staff; their bullpen is pretty solid. So we're in for a battle."
IN A GROOVE: Shields enters tonight's start with some confidence, having won his past two outings and gone 5-2 in his past seven.
"I think this is the best I've felt all year long," Shields said. "If I can continue to make progress and keep working and give my team a chance to win, that's always good."
MAKING PROGRESS: RHP Jeff Niemann said he felt good after a "pretty heavy" bullpen session Saturday, saying he tried to iron some things out from his last start, when he gave up a career-high 10 runs. Niemann, who struggled with command in his first start since coming off the DL, said he's physically fine; it was more an issue of mechanics or "feel."
"Everything's fine," Niemann said. "I think the last time it was just a bad day and that happens. I just went out there and addressed the issues and (hope to) get back out there and try again."
FOR STARTERS: RHP Grant Balfour (intercostal strain) had a rough start for Class A Charlotte on Saturday, not even getting out of the first inning. Balfour gave up three runs on three walks and two hits, striking out two for both his outs. … Recently acquired OF Brad Hawpe batted three times as the DH for Charlotte and went 0-for-2 with a walk.
REMATCH TIME: DH Dan Johnson said he enjoyed getting another chance against Red Sox closer Jonathan Papelbon on Friday night, his first plate appearance against him since hitting the home run in Boston on Sept. 9, 2008. Johnson would have loved to have hit a tying two-run homer, but he settled for a walk.
"It was fun," Johnson said. "He wanted to (strike) me out just as bad as I wanted to get a hit. We found common ground in a walk."
MISCELLANY: Crawford returned to the lineup Saturday after missing a game due to a stomach virus.
MINOR MATTERS: OF Leslie Anderson entered Saturday's game having collected multiple hits in 11 of his 20 games with Triple-A Durham and was batting .354. … LHP Jake McGee continued his stellar relief work for the Bulls, tossing two hitless innings Friday, and has given up no runs in 122/3 innings there.
Joe Smith can be reached at email@example.com.