Boston’s Rafael Devers reacts to a called strike in Kansas City on Saturday. Red Sox hitters went 4 for 21 with runners in scoring position while losing two of three games to the Royals. Colin E. Braley/Associated Press

The Red Sox are ready to run the gauntlet.

This week, Boston will face the Tampa Bay Rays and New York Yankees, their top two competitors for the American League East title this season. It’ll be a good litmus test as we approach the midway point of the season.

Kevin Cash’s Rays have come back to earth over the past week, losing six straight. That comes on the heels of a 24-5 run that saw Tampa Bay surge to the top of the division.

The Red Sox arrived in Florida after losing two of three to the Royals. Not an ideal tune-up for an important week. The Sox pitched poorly and looked sloppy in the field against a Kansas City team that had lost six straight and 11 of 12 before hosting Boston.

Red Sox fans are having flashbacks to 2020, when a strong offense was overshadowed by poor pitching performances. Boston’s pitchers posted a 2.47 ERA in the first seven games of June, but have been torched to a 6.45 ERA in 12 games since.

All of this coincides with Major League Baseball’s crackdown on illegal substances for pitchers, which officially began on Monday. Manager Alex Cora was happy his team had the day off so he could have the best seat in the house while the rest of baseball dealt with the new reality.

“We’ll be watching a lot of games and see how it goes,” Cora said over the weekend. “They’re going to do their job. They’re going to check on the starters. They’re going to check on the relievers. They’re going to check on the catchers …

“Monday is a perfect day for us to sit back and watch games and learn from the whole situation to be ready for Tuesday.”

When that series begins, the Rays will be without their best pitcher. Tyler Glasnow suffered a serious elbow injury last week that included a partially torn UCL. He and the Rays are hopeful that he can avoid Tommy John surgery, opting instead to rest and rehab his arm in hopes of a late-season return. It remains to be seen if Glasnow can return this year. What we do know is that he blamed the mid-season crackdown on his injury.

“I just threw 80-something, 70-whatever innings,” Glasnow said when speaking to reporters the day after the injury, “and you just told me I can’t use anything in the middle of the year? I had to change everything I’ve been doing the entire season.  Everything out the window. I had to start doing something completely new. And I’m telling you, I truly believe, that’s why I got hurt.”

Red Sox defenders could’ve used a little help getting balls to stick to their gloves in Kansas City. The defense was shoddy, not making key plays and allowing innings to continue. All of that led to a four-inning start from Nate Eovaldi.

“I thought our defense was horrible,” Cora said after Sunday’s 7-3 loss. “Defensively we didn’t help (Eovaldi). We still had a chance to win the ballgame but our defense wasn’t good enough and that put us in a bad spot.”

The Red Sox will have to be sharper in all aspects of the game this week. The defense needs to improve. Starting pitchers need to go deeper into games. And the offense, which went 4 for 21 with runners in scoring position over the weekend, needs to step up in the clutch.

The Sox have been good against their rivals, going 17-8 in the AL East. That’s why they sit atop the division going into this important week. It’s also why losing a series against the lowly Royals might come back to haunt them in September.

“It doesn’t matter if it’s the Royals or the Yankees, Rays, or Astros,” Cora said Sunday evening. “We don’t like losing series.”

Two of the biggest series of Boston’s season are this week.

Tom Caron is a studio host for Red Sox broadcasts on NESN. His column runs on Tuesdays in the Portland Press Herald.


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