The Tampa Bay Rays roll into Boston this afternoon. So does Lars Anderson.

Somewhere in the juxtaposition between the two is the uncomfortable limbo in which the Boston Red Sox currently find themselves.

This could have been the week the Red Sox made their move. Had they stayed a game or two closer to Tampa, a sweep this week would have turned the pennant race heat up to white-hot levels.

This could have been the week the Red Sox waved the white flag. Had their recent struggles resulted in something like a 10-game deficit in the Wild Card, it would be time to officially pull the plug. Rest the regulars, call up half of the minor leagues, and spend the next four weeks learning what you have for the future.

Instead it’s a little of both.

If the loyal fandom is being honest with itself, the Red Sox are out of the hunt. Mathematics say otherwise, and a magical sweep of the Rays would perhaps rekindle some flicker of hope, but it would take a monumental surge—and an equally monumental collapse on the part of the Rays or Yankees—for this season to extend into mid-October.

And yet, it’s too soon to completely lie down, at least from a management perspective. What would it say to the people who purchase some of the most expensive tickets in baseball if they rolled out the Triple-A All-Stars to start a three-game set with the team directly in front of them in the standings?

It would certainly be a way to end the consecutive sell-out streak in a hurry.

So, at least from a public relations standpoint, the Sox have to try this week. They have to play most of the normal lineup, and shuffle the pitching rotation as they have to get Clay Buchholz involved. It has to at least look like a valiant effort.

And then there’s Anderson. He’s up in part because Mike Lowell is ailing and the rosters have expanded, but he’s also up so the Sox can take a peek at what he’s got against Big League pitching. It’s an experiment, one teams don’t often set in motion unless the pennant race cat is long since out of the bag.

In reality, Anderson’s appearance is much more telling than Tampa’s. Expect things to change dramatically after this three-game set, as more new faces tote their luggage from Pawtucket and more familiar faces begin enjoying some rest.

Because even though the Red Sox will play this series as if it had serious playoff implications, reality tells us otherwise. And Anderson’s arrival tells us the same.

The Sox will give it the old college try, if for no other reason than to satiate an always-rabid fan base. But come Thursday, it becomes Spring Training In Autumn.

Anderson is simply reporting to camp a few days earlier than others.

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