Over the next 27 hours or so, we’re going to find out if the battle for the American League East title is going to be a three-horse race.

The Tampa Bay Rays are in Boston to play three games in a day and a half, and Joe Maddon’s crew is teetering on the edge of falling out of it.

Truth is, it seemed the Rays were out of it three weeks ago. They had fallen 10.5 games back of first place (8.5 back in the Wild Card) and the discussion about the Rays changed.

They were no longer a good, young team battling the high-payroll competition of the East, they were a good, young group of prospects that would be ready to compete again in a year or two.

Teams like that are expected to bunker down and reload for the future.

As the clock counted down to the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline, the Rays were expected to ship off a player or two and round up more prospects to do battle in years to come. It was time to retreat.

The Rays didn’t see it that way. They didn’t trade off James Shields. They held onto B.J. Upton. They decided to stick with the roster they had and see if they could make one last push before the season came to an end.

Since July 31, the Rays have won nine of 13 games. They’ve closed the gap a bit, and now have a chance to do more.

After a rainout in New York on Sunday, the Rays arrived in Boston via train wearing 1950’s-style fedoras. It was the latest in Maddon’s “dress up” road trips that has seen the Rays dress like grunge rockers on a trip to Seattle, auto workers on a flight to Detroit, and surfer dudes on the road to California.

Now, they’ll try to dress up like contenders.

Shields, who has 11 wins and a 2.80 ERA, will start the first game of today’s day-night doubleheader.

He’s already beaten the Sox once this season. He’s part of a rotation that has an ERA of 3.62, fourth-best in the league and a full half-run better than Boston’s.

Three of their starters have an ERA of 3.42 or better, and that doesn’t include David Price. Price has two wins against the Sox this season.

If their starters can go deep, they’ve got a solid closer waiting for the ball.

Kyle Farnsworth (21 saves, 1.96 ERA) is the only closer in the AL with 20 or more saves and an ERA under 2.00.

Pitching has been a strength for the Rays, but hitting certainly hasn’t.

The Rays are only hitting .244 as a team, second worst in the AL.

They’ve gotten impressive seasons out of Boston castoff Casey Kotchman (.870 OPS, on base plus slugging percentage) and Matt Joyce (.844 OPS and a team-leading 53 RBI.)

They lost Evan Longoria for about a month, but he’s back and is the top home run hitter on the team.

The Rays will ultimately have a lot to say about how the Sox finish their season.

After this three-game, two-day stretch in Boston there are still seven more games remaining between these teams in September.

In eight meetings so far, the teams are 4-4. Two of those Tampa Bay wins came during Boston’s 2-10 start. The Sox are a much better team since then, going 71-35, the best record in baseball after the first 12 games of the season.

Thanks to the rain in New York, the Rays were able to juggle their rotation for today’s doubleheader.

The Sox will now see Shields, Jeff Niemann, and Price in the three games.

Boston will counter with Jon Lester, Erik Bedard, and Jon Lackey.

The Sox have suddenly lost three of four, and returned from the West Coast on Sunday clinging to a half-game lead over the Yankees.

They’ll hit the road again Wednesday night for Kansas City and Texas. By then, we’ll have a pretty good idea where the Rays fit into this season’s AL East picture.

Tom Caron is the studio host for Red Sox broadcasts on the New England Sports Network. His column appears in the Press Herald on Tuesdays.


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