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Surging Rays a big test for Red Sox

The Rays are coming back to Fenway Park, where they split a two-game series with the Red Sox last month.

Gail Oskin/Getty Images

The Rays are coming back to Fenway Park, where they split a two-game series with the Red Sox last month.

The Red Sox own many of the team statistical superlatives in the American League, so why haven’t they been able to break away from the Tampa Bay Rays, with whom they begin a four-game series Monday night?

The Sox have been the only AL team that has been over .500 the entire season, and after Sunday night’s 8-7, 11-inning victory over the Yankees, they have the most wins in the majors with 60.

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They have been in first place or tied for first for 90 days.

With all of the fancy numbers in their favor, the Sox will face quite a buzz saw in the Rays. Tampa Bay, which started out the season hitting well but not pitching well, now is pitching well and hitting well enough to have had the best record in baseball since May 8 (44-23).

The Rays just polished off the Blue Jays in three straight in Toronto to open their post-All-Star break schedule.

The Red Sox have issues and they need to solve some of them with outside help.

When lefthanded reliever Andrew Miller was injured, the Red Sox went to the White Sox and got lefty Matt Thornton, who has struggled. Now Andrew Bailey is out of the bullpen mix, scheduled to undergo season-ending shoulder surgery this week.

The Red Sox have no idea about Clay Buchholz’s timetable to return to the starting rotation; he will get a second opinion from Dr. James Andrews on Monday to determine whether his stiff neck is more than a stiff neck.

Jon Lester was pushed back a couple of days to get more rest. That seems somewhat unnerving as well.

Which is why the Red Sox may have doubled back into the Matt Garza trade talks and may also be considering more White Sox pitchers, such as former National League Cy Young winner Jake Peavy and injured reliever Jesse Crain, who perhaps could be had after the trading deadline.

The Red Sox also have done their due diligence on Houston starter Bud Norris and closer Jose Veras, as well as Minnesota closer Glen Perkins.

The Red Sox do have chips to make something happen for a pitcher. They have tried to show restraint and not overpay. They are giving youngster Brandon Workman a chance to be in their rotation after pitching a gem vs. Oakland last week in which he had a no-hitter going into the seventh inning.

Workman will pitch the series opener vs. Tampa Bay Monday night.

You can bet on one thing — the Rays will show restraint.

It’s doubtful they will do anything substantial to improve their team because of payroll issues. But right now, they appear to be a pretty solid team and even better since David Price returned from a long stint on the disabled list.

The Rays enter Boston having won 13 of their past 14 games.

They’ve also won seven consecutive series.

What’s interesting is the Rays need to prove they can beat the Red Sox, because up to this point they’re a disastrous 3-9. The Sox are essentially in first place in the American League East because of their good results against the Rays.

This, of course, is a different Rays team than the one the Red Sox took two of three from June 18 and 19.

Evan Longoria hit his 20th homer Sunday, the first of three against R.A. Dickey. Luke Scott, who also homered Sunday, now has a 13-game hitting streak. Rookie Wil Myers has proven to be the real deal in the middle of the Rays’ lineup. Former Red Sox James Loney has had a breakout season at the plate.

Chris Archer has really come into his own in Tampa Bay’s starting rotation. The Sox won’t see him, but they will see 13-game winner lefty Matt Moore, righty Roberto Hernandez, Price, and Jeremy Hellickson, all of whom are pitching well.

Price’s ace status has given the Rays such a major confidence boost that it’s created a trickle-down effect with the other pitchers on the staff.

The one area in which the Rays are crossing their fingers is closer Fernando Rodney. While converting saves, he’s made things interesting.

Take Sunday, for instance.

He entered in the ninth with a 4-1 lead. The Blue Jays scored two runs before he struck out Jose Bautista, got Edwin Encarnacion to ground out, walked Adam Lind, and got Melky Cabrera to ground to third.

“Baseball’s such a unique game,” Rays manager Joe Maddon said. “The turns and twists are incredible. That’s the game we had been losing earlier in the year. Now, we’re winning that same game.”

The Blue Jays had that outstanding run of 11 straight wins in June to become relevant again, but they’ve since gone back to their losing ways and are 13½ games out of first place.

Sometimes the journey back is exhausting, but the Rays seem to be built to sustain it over the long term.

As Red Sox owner John Henry pointed out in a recent WEEI interview, the Sox’ inner statistical models had the Rays winning the AL East entering the season. That was based in large part on their extraordinary pitching. When their pitching didn’t get off to a good start, there was some doubt whether the Rays would be close to the top.

“There’s no doubt we’re going up to the hottest team in baseball,” Red Sox manager John Farrell said. “Their team is pitching very well, as we have been accustomed to seeing.”

Just as the Red Sox proved at the start of the season they could compete within their division — starting out 8-4 against the AL East — they must now prove they can handle the division coming out of the break, playing New York, Tampa Bay, and Baltimore for 10 games.

The Red Sox have been consistent so far, but that model has yet to guarantee them anything.

And Tampa Bay is looking for a bit of payback for being kicked around by the Red Sox over their first 12 games against them.

Nick Cafardo can be reached at cafardo@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @nickcafardo.
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