ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- The Boston Red Sox had one of the best bullpens in baseball last season, ranking second in all of baseball with their relievers posting a 3.15 ERA.
As the Red Sox continue their season-opening series at the Rays on Friday, they'll hope to bounce back from a rare late-inning collapse Thursday when relievers Joe Kelly and Carson Smith combined to give up six runs in the eighth inning in a 6-4 loss to the Rays.
"He didn't throw strikes," new Boston manager Alex Cora said of Kelly, who walked three and gave up a hit to help blow a four-run lead. In all of last season, the Red Sox never lost once leading by two runs or more, and this spoiled a gem from Chris Sale, who held the Rays to one hit in six scoreless innings.
On Friday, the Red Sox turn to another top starter in left-hander David Price, facing the team he played for during his first seven seasons. Price was limited by an elbow injury for most of last season, going 6-3 with a 3.38 ERA but making only 16 appearances, five in relief.
He's faced his old team nine times before, with middling success -- 3-3 with a 3.91 ERA, including an 0-0 mark with a 2.25 ERA in two appearances last season. A strong start is important, but obviously all eyes will be on the bullpen -- Kelly (2.79) and Smith (1.35) had two of the three best ERAs on the staff last year.
The Rays will counter with their own lefty in 25-year-old Blake Snell, who started miserably last year, failing to earn a win in any of his first 15 starts. He finished 5-7 with a 4.04 ERA, and his finish was much more impressive, going 5-1 in his final nine starts.
Snell hasn't fare well against Boston in his career -- he went 0-2 last year with a 5.91 ERA, and for his career, he's 1-3 with a 5.95 ERA against the Red Sox.
Tampa Bay's bats didn't show much in Thursday's opener, finishing with just four hits, but one big inning was all they needed to pull off a huge home win in front of a sold-out Tropicana Field crowd.
"Probably not how we drew it up, but when you're facing a guy like Chris Sale, you can anticipate that you're going to have a difficult night at the plate," Rays manager Kevin Cash said. "He gave us every bit of that, but it speaks volumes about this clubhouse and our club right now to bounce back against a very good bullpen."
The Rays struggled offensively against left-handers last year -- they hit just .239 as a team and had only 49 home runs in 1,549 at-bats. They hit home runs 44 percent more often against right-handers, but this year's team is designed to rely less on the long ball, with a huge majority of last year's power dealt away.
Thursday's win was emblematic of that -- half the runs in the eighth came on a two-out, bases-loaded triple by newcomer Denard Span, a Tampa native who made the most of his Rays debut close to home.