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Tampa Bay Rays Vs. Boston Red Sox: Carl Crawford's Return

The MLB Schedule Overlords, in their robotic and constant pursuit of total Rays destruction, have anointed the Rays' return from their grueling road trip with a three game set against the AL's best Boston Red Sox. Yes, the Rays (35-31, 4.5 games back) take on the division-leading Red Sox (39-26) who have won 9 of their last 10 -- and nearly each victory came in blowout fashion. The Red Sox hitters are seeing the ball well right now, and Tampa faces an immense obstacle on their path to the playoffs.

Toeing the bump for the Rays today will be Mr. Big Game himself, James Shields (5-4, 2.85 ERA, 3.50 FIP), who has been enjoying a career year so far. Shields is 5 and 1/3 innings away from 100 innings pitched on the year, which would put him in the triple digit category with Felix Hernandez, Justin Verlander, Jered Weaver, and CC Sabathia -- not bad company, for sure.

Shields has always struggled a bit with homers, and 2011 has been no exception. For him to be successful tonight, he will need to keep the bases clear, so that when the inevitable home run or two comes, it will not produce a crooked number.

Tim Wakefield (3-1, 4.84 ERA, 4.88 FIP) takes the mound for the Red Sox tonight. If the Rays have the pitching advantage in any one of these games, it would be tonight against the 44-year-old knuckle-baller. Wakefield started the season as the Red Sox long man, but moved into the starting rotation when Daisuke Matsuzaka went to the DL. For a long time, Wakefield had the Rays' number -- and that number was 19-3. From 1998 through 2007, Tim Wakefield went 19-3 with a 3.12 ERA. Since 2008 (and including this year), Wakefield has managed a 7.60 ERA and a 2-3 record.

Key to the Rays success against Wakefield has been their deployment of same-handed hitters, similar to their Danks Theory lineups of the past. Expect to see the likes of Sean Rodriguez and Justin Ruggiano tonight as they attempt to further exploit the knuckle-baller's weakness.

Another interesting tidbit for tonight: Carl Crawford makes his return to Tropicana Field. Steve Slowinski and Gary Shelton implore readers and Rays fans to restrain from booing Crawford tonight, arguing he deserves at least one cheer from the Tampa Bay faithful. Whether or not the fans cheer or boo their greatest player in franchise, rest assured: It will be electric tonight.

Photographs by, thelastminute, turtlemom nancy , fesek, kthypryn, justinwright, sue_elias, pointnshoot, and scrapstothefuture used in background montage under Creative Commons. Thank you.