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04/27/08 1:54 AM ET

Francona has growing respect for Rays

Boston (15-11) at Tampa Bay (13-11), Sunday, 1:40 p.m. ET

ST. PETERSBURG -- Heading into Sunday's series finale with the Rays, manager Terry Francona acknowledged that Tampa Bay has exorcised much more than the "devil" out of their names. Boston was 13-5 against Tampa Bay in 2007 and has a dominating 92-42 record against the long-beleaguered franchise.

"I'm not going to rate them, but they are doing a good job [this year], I would certainly agree with that," Francona said. "I'm not going to say they can win the [American League East], because I don't want anybody to win the division but us.

"But they're doing a good job. You can see a lot of Angels influence with [manager Joe Maddon] -- the way they run the bases, things like that."

Perhaps the biggest proof of the new Rays came in Boston's extra-innings loss on Friday, in which the Sox twice squandered a lead and could never quite close the door and get to flamethrower Jonathan Papelbon. The young Tampa Bay team was buoyed by excellent defense and a stingy bullpen in the four-hour game.

"You just kind of go through our division, and every game you get beat up a little bit," Francona said. "[Friday] night was a tough game to lose, it was a tough game to win. They went through a lot to win that game. So your starting pitching the next night becomes important, because you can run yourself into the ground a little bit."

Saturday starter Clay Buchholz met that mark, giving the bullpen a much-needed day off. The right-hander tossed 7 2/3 innings of two-hit ball, dominating the Rays until he gave up a two-run homer that proved to be the game-winner.

"He threw great, looked great out there," Kevin Youkilis said. "[He] mixed his offspeed and fastballs well, and it's kind of tough to get a loss in a game like that."

Now the ball goes to Josh Beckett, who appears to be free and clear from the flu-like virus that swept the clubhouse, which, combined with a stiff neck, forced the ace to miss his start on Tuesday.

Beckett has the chance to be the stopper for the slumping Sox, who have dropped four straight games after winning 10 of their previous 11 contests. In his last start, on April 17, he earned his second win of the season, going eight strong innings in a win over the Yankees.

The club badly needs another pitching gem, as their hits have been scattered.

With David Ortiz likely to be sidelined again with a bruised right knee and veteran Sean Casey on the 15-day disabled list, the first two games in Tampa Bay have been a series of letdowns for a team that entered the weekend leading the AL East.

But if there's one guy Boston can turn to for a "W," it's Beckett, who has posted a 53-27 record since the start of 2005, the most wins of any Major League pitcher in that span.

Pitching matchup
BOS: RHP Josh Beckett (2-1, 5.12 ERA)
Beckett is 3-2 in five games vs. Tampa Bay, with a 4.32 ERA.

TB: RHP James Shields (2-1, 3.30 ERA)
Shields is 0-2 with a 4.64 ERA in four career games vs. the Red Sox.

The team released right-hander Dan Kolb from his Triple-A Pawtucket contract on Saturday to make room for hurler Devern Hansack, who is returning from the disabled list with a contusion in his right forearm. ... Youkilis has reached a Major League-record 1,701 consecutive chances without an error at first base.

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On the Internet
 Gameday Audio
•  Gameday
•  Official game notes

On television

On radio
• WRKO 680, SBN 1150 (Español)

Up next
• Monday: Off-day
• Tuesday: Red Sox (Daisuke Matsuzaka, 4-0, 3.14) vs. Blue Jays (Roy Halladay, 2-3, 3.73), 7:05 p.m. ET
• Wednesday: Red Sox (Jon Lester, 1-2, 5.40) vs. Blue Jays (TBD), 7:05 p.m. ET

Brittany Ghiroli is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.