Tonight will be a huge game. For so many teams, for so many reasons.
For the Red Sox, this could be the “not quite nail” game. The Rays have to be entering the series hoping that a sweep will get them to at least within striking distance of the division. If the Sox win at least one game during the series, the effect on the division lead will be minimal at best. So, if the Sox can get that game right off the bat, the whole dynamic of the series will change. Will the hopes and effectiveness of the Rays change along with it?
Bigger picture, will be the return of Clay Buchholz. What is he? What can he do? How can he pitch? Is he the not-so-secret weapon for the Sox down the stretch? Can he be an effective starter? What we’re looking at is the best team in the league adding its best starter after a long absence. Does that ever happen? While you could claim that the Sox haven’t missed him in the months he’s been out, you certainly don’t have to look very far to see that he could be useful. The Sox have been winning some games in spite of his replacements, as opposed to because of them. If he can come back and be the Clay of April it helps the rotation, it helps the bullpen, and it helps the team. A lot. So, tonight will be a big step towards seeing what this team will look like down the road.
My only fear for the series? The mismatch of urgency. While the Rays HAVE to win, the Sox really don’t. If the Sox don’t win tonight, a win tomorrow will be just as good. If they lose the first two, winning the third will be just fine. And, if they get swept? While it would be annoying, it would still leave them with a 4.5 game lead in the division with 14 games remaining. While this team hasn’t shown any signs of falling into that trap, the return of Clay might be just the thing. Hopefully they won’t relax not that their ace is back. Hopefully they won’t be so focused on changing the way they play to accommodate him and his reentrance to the rotation, that it affects other areas.
Like I said, I don’t expect that to happen. With so many people who have been on the team for a few years, I would be shocked if it did happen. But, if I needed to pick one thing, that would be it. Thankfully the Sox know that too.
Which is why they’re trying hard to take this series.