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STAKES HIGH AS AILING RED SOX RETURN

Though the Red Sox keep losing players to the disabled list, the Rays haven't lost sight of how important this upcoming three-game series at home could be.

Boston, which swept the Rays at Tropicana Field in mid May, is a half-game ahead of them in second place in the AL East.

"I think this is where the winners separate themselves, and ... put that space in between," said RHP Matt Garza, who starts tonight. "We've got to take two. It's a must-do. And I guarantee they're the same way. The winners are going to separate themselves right here, right before the break. And it's going to be a huge separation - if you sweep, it can be a five-game separation.

"They know it. We know it. So it's going to be a lot of fun, almost like a playoff atmosphere."

Garza can set the tone tonight, and he has fared well against the Red Sox in his career (7-3, 3.40). In winning his past two starts, Garza said he has gotten back to his strengths, including being aggressive with his fastball.

And though the Red Sox are missing three regular position players, and C Jason Varitek went on the DL last week with a broken right foot, Garza isn't taking their lineup lightly.

"I know they've got a lot of guys out, but they still find a way to get it done," he said. "That just shows you it's not just one guy."

Said manager Joe Maddon: "Trust me, they're not going anywhere. They've got enough veterans and pros on that team."

NO THANKS: 3B Evan Longoria said, if asked, he'll politely decline to participate in the All-Star Game's home run derby. He'd rather rest and watch, considering those who play in the game don't get much of a break. "I'm not one of those big monster home run hitters that can hit it 500 feet every time," Longoria said.

QUOTABLE: Maddon, on improving their surprisingly mediocre 20-19 record at Tropicana Field during this upcoming seven-game homestand: "We wanted to do better on the road: mission accomplished. We wanted to get off to a good start: mission accomplished. I guess I didn't talk enough about status quo at home. ...

"We need to play like we're capable of at home. And if we maintain anything near what we're doing on the road, we'll be in pretty good shape."

IN CLOSING: All-Star appearance or not, closer Rafael Soriano's first half - 21 saves in 22 chances - has been tough to top. "Lots of people say when you play in the National League and you come to the American League, it's never easy for the pitchers," Soriano said. "To me, everyone (has) seen the numbers I put up in the first half. To me, I feel comfortable and I feel happy with that."

MISCELLANY: RHP James Shields picked up his 50th career victory, moving within five of all-time club leader Scott Kazmir. ... Sean Rodriguez tied a career high with three hits and has hit safely in six straight games, and Maddon said his defense at second base "is absolutely a blast to watch." ... C Kelly Shoppach threw out his third runner in 12 attempts.

* * *

UP NEXT

vs. Red Sox

Today through Wednesday

What's new: The banged-up Red Sox (49-33) lost two more players to the disabled list since they split a two-game series with the Rays at Fenway Park last week, C Jason Varitek (broken right foot) and RH reliever Manny Delcarmen (strained right forearm). Already without All-Stars 2B Dustin Pedroia and C Victor Martinez, the Red Sox have won five of their past seven and are still just 1 1/2 games behind the Yankees in the American League East. The Rays will catch a bit of a break with Boston All-Star LHP Jon Lester and RHP Clay Buchholz not scheduled to pitch this series.

Key stat: The Red Sox lead the American League in runs scored (448) and are second in home runs (109).

Connections: Sox 1B coach Tim Bogar was a Rays coach, hitting coach Dave Magadan a Tampa product. ... Rays C Kelly Shoppach, 1B Carlos Pena and OF Gabe Kapler are former Sox. Senior adviser Don Zimmer managed in Boston.

Series history: The Rays have split eight games with the Red Sox this season, with Boston sweeping them in a three-game set at Tropicana Field (May 24-26), outscoring the Rays 19-4. The Red Sox lead the all-time series 132-82, including 57-49 at the Trop.

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