Ben Whitehead
Contributing Writer

It will be up to John Lackey to keep the Boston Red Sox (61-42) in first place in the AL East. With the Tampa Bay Rays (60-42) just a half-game back and looking to take three of four from the Sox, tonight’s game means much more than just a July intra-division clash.

Boston has been in first place in the East for nearly two months and would like to remain there for the rest of the season. Tampa hasn’t been in first since April 6, but the Rays are playing better than anybody in baseball, having won 19 of their last 22 games, including taking the two of the first three at Fenway Park. The Sox were in the same position two nights ago and were victorious, 6-2, to keep the Rays 1.5 games back. We'll see they can duplicate that tonight.

Lackey is 7-7 but boasts a 2.95 ERA and has arguably been the Sox’ ace for much of the season. He has pitched to his capabilities after returning from Tommy John Surgery and shown Red Sox Nation the type of competitor they expected to get when he signed in December 2009. The last time he faced the Rays, things got heated when benches cleared after Lackey hit Matt Joyce, who had homered off him earlier in the game. Lackey and the Red Sox maintain there was no intent behind the beaming, but Joyce had some choice words, saying he felt it was “pretty bush league” and “very obvious” why he was hit.

Here is the Red Sox lineup tonight (first pitch – 7:10 pm EDT):

1. Ellsbury, CF
2. Victorino, RF
3. Pedroia, 2B
4. Ortiz, DH
5. Napoli, 1B
6. Saltalamacchia, C
7. Gomes, LF
8. Drew, SS
9. Iglesias, 3B

Lackey, P

The Rays will start Jeremy Hellickson, who is 9-3 with a 4.62 ERA. He has won seven of his last nine starts and looks to follow Matt Moore and David Price, who both shut down the Red Sox in Games 1 and 3 of this series.

Off to an OK start
The Red Sox finished with 59 wins prior to the All-Star Break, the most in Major League Baseball. Since they’ve returned to the diamond, the Sox are just 3-3 and their lead in the East has shrunk from 3.5 games to 0.5, with the chance to fall into second place tonight. Boston took two of three from the Yankees, but required extra innings to earn the series win, and has lost two of three to the Rays, being dominated by two Rays’ starters – Moore and Price – who combined for two complete games and one run allowed.

Napoli heating up
Mike Napoli has had a good run in five games since the break. Napoli is hitting .389 with three home runs, two doubles and five RBI in that span, helping raise his average nine points from .257 to .266. His bat will be crucial down the stretch, particularly since he bats behind Dustin Pedroia and David Ortiz in the order.

Let us know what you think about tonight’s game by commenting below.

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Ben Whitehead 7/25/2013 05:00:00 PM Edit
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