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Jon Lester, Red Sox Open Pivotal Weekend Series Against Rays

(Sports Network) - A terrific pitching matchup is on tap this evening when David Price and the Tampa Bay Rays welcome Jon Lester and the Boston Red Sox to town for the start of an important three-game series at Tropicana Field.

Tampa comes into tonight's tilt tied atop the American League East standings with the New York Yankees, while the Red Sox sit 5 1/2 games back of both teams, despite a plethora of injuries.

"We have to go to [St. Petersburg] and at least win the series," third baseman Adrian Beltre told the team's website. "I think we're trying to go in there looking for a sweep, so we can get a better chance to cut it down. They're playing really good baseball -- Tampa Bay and the Yankees -- so we have to try and do our stuff and win games, because it's been tough. They're not budging."

Tonight's tilt is the first of six meetings between these teams between now and the end of the regular season.

The Rays, who will be beginning a stretch of 18 straight games within the division, have been incredible at home of late, winning 19 of their past 24 games at the Trop since the beginning of July -- the best home record in the majors over that time.

A big reason for that has been Price, who is 7-1 with a 2.11 earned run average in his 11 starts in St. Petersburg. Tonight, he will be taking a third crack at win No. 16 after receiving no-decisions his last two times out. The former first overall pick, who is 15-5 with a 2.97 earned run average, did not factor into the decision of his team's 5-4 win on Saturday, and surrendered four runs and six hits in six innings.

The left-hander, who turned 25 on Thursday, beat the Red Sox the last time he faced them and is 2-1 with a 3.79 ERA in three career starts against Boston.

Lester, meanwhile, will be trying to bounce back from one of the worst outings of his career. Last Friday the Toronto Blue Jays battered him for nine runs and eight hits in just two innings. The loss stopped a two-start winning streak for Lester and dropped him to 13-8 with a 3.26 ERA.

The southpaw tossed six scoreless innings to beat Tampa back on May 25 and is 7-3 in 14 starts against them with a 4.18 ERA.

Lester had been slated to start the nightcap of Boston's day/night doubleheader with the Seattle Mariners, but after the Red Sox claimed a 5-3 win in the opener he was pushed back to this series to skip the ailing Daisuke Matsuzaka.

However, even if Lester had been on the hill for the second game it may not have mattered, as the Boston bats were silenced by Felix Hernandez in a 4-2 loss.

On short notice, Tim Wakefield (3-10) took the loss after giving up four runs -- three earned -- on eight hits in 5 2/3 innings, while J.D. Drew homered for the Red Sox, who had a four-game win streak stopped.

Tampa will also be looking to bounce back from a loss after ending its seven- game West Coast road trip on a sour note, as it was crushed by the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim 12-3 in the finale of a three-game set at Angel Stadium.

John Jaso finished 3-for-5 with a homer and drove in all three runs for the Rays, who had won nine of their last 11 before the rout and ended the trek 4-3.

Jeff Niemann (10-4), who was activated from the 15-day disabled list prior to the contest, was torched in defeat for a career-high 10 runs -- all earned -- and eight hits over 3 1/3 frames.

"Jeff had a very difficult day. He just had a bad time throwing his fastball where he wanted to," said Rays manager Joe Maddon of Niemann. "It's all about command. When he gets that back, he's going to be fine."

The Rays have won eight of their 12 meetings with the Red Sox this season.