That was the last thing the Rays wanted as they head into their biggest series in franchise history and greatest house of horrors—a sold out Fenway Park—to begin a three-game series with the defending World Series champion Red Sox with the AL East lead at stake.
Tampa Bay (85-56) ended August with a 5 1/2-game lead over Boston (84-58), with both teams likely to head to the postseason regardless of which wins the division. But the unprecedented success of the Rays in the first five months has given way to the struggles and misery usually associated throughout their previous 10 years, reducing that bulge to 1 1/2 games.
The Rays were swept in a three-game series at Toronto, capped with a 1-0 defeat Sunday that dropped them to 1-5 in September, and 41-72 (.363) in that month dating to the 2004 season.
“I think we might be putting a little bit of pressure on ourselves right now,” outfielder B.J. Upton said. “We’ve just got to loosen up and go play our game, play the way we’ve been playing all year.”
That self-applied pressure may pale in comparison to that applied from the Red Sox and their rabid fan base. The Rays have never won a series all-time at Fenway in 25 tries, splitting just four, and this year has been an absolute nightmare—six games, six losses by a combined 45-16 margin with a staff ERA of 7.88.
“We really do need to win a game or two in Boston,” manager Joe Maddon admitted to the Rays’ official Web site. “I’ve said that from the very beginning. It would be nice to get a win up there, possibly two, whatever—just (to eliminate) the mental hurdle that you have to overcome by winning on that form of enemy territory.”
While the Rays are still learning how to deal with the pressure of meaningful baseball in September, the Red Sox look comfortable. Boston won two of three games at Texas, including a 7-2 victory Sunday in which David Ortiz ended a 20-game homerless drought with a two-run shot in the fifth.
It was the 14th win in the last 18 games for the Red Sox, who have trailed the Rays the past 52 days since leading them by one-half game at the All-Star break. Boston is also 69-48 (.590) in September games the last five-plus years as it tries to win a third World Series in that span.
“You want to be just as close to zero as possible,” first baseman Kevin Youkilis told the Red Sox’ official Web site. “Sweeps are great, but more than anything, we just want to win each series. We control our own fate, so we can’t depend on others to beat the Rays for us.”
Edwin Jackson (11-9, 4.07 ERA) will try to set the tone for the Rays and be their streak stopper. The right-hander lost for just the second time in his last eight starts, giving up six hits and 10 runs - equaling season highs - in a season-low 3 1-3 innings of an 8-4 loss to the New York Yankees on Wednesday.
Jackson is 0-2 with a 6.19 ERA in three starts versus Boston this year, but has been brutal in two losses at Fenway - getting rocked for 10 runs and 15 hits in nine innings. The right-hander is 0-3 with an 8.18 ERA in five lifetime appearances at Fenway.
Ortiz is 5-for-11 with a homer and five RBIs lifetime versus Jackson.
Jon Lester (13-5, 3.37) has been dominant at Fenway, going 8-0 with a 2.64 ERA in his last 13 starts there - highlighted by his no-hitter May 19 against Kansas City - since losing his first home start of 2008.
The left-hander limited Baltimore to one run in five innings of a 14-2 rout on Tuesday, leaving after 99 pitches with the game well in hand. Lester has two of the six wins in 2008 at Fenway against the Rays, conceding just two runs in 12 1-3 innings, and is 3-0 in six lifetime starts.
The game will be a major league-record 456th consecutive sellout at Fenway Park - bettering the previous mark held by the Cleveland Indians at Jacobs Field from June 12, 1995-April 2, 2001.