With two thrilling wins at Fenway Park last week, the Tampa Bay Rays left Boston with a 2 1/2-game lead in the AL East and a feeling their first division crown was well within reach.
Five days later, that cushion is on the verge of disappearing altogether.
The Red Sox will try to pull into a first-place tie with the Rays on Monday when the teams begin a critical three-game set at Tropicana Field that could go a long way toward deciding the East champion.
Heading into last week’s series, Tampa Bay (88-59) and Boston had split their first 12 regular-season meetings, with each team sweeping six games at its home park. They Rays’ inability to win at Fenway wasn’t anything new though – including their six losses there to start this season, they’d lost 32 out of their last 37 at the historic venue.
But Tampa Bay turned what could have wound up as another three-game sweep into a momentum-building result. The Rays dropped the opener 3-0, and were trailing 4-3 in the ninth on Tuesday before Dan Johnson - called up from the minors earlier that day - homered off closer Jonathan Papelbon, igniting a two-run rally that turned into a 5-4 win.
The next night, the score was tied at 1 from the third inning until the 14th, when Carlos Pena’s three-run homer lifted Tampa Bay to a 4-2 victory.
“If that’s what September baseball is all about, it’s a lot of fun,” Jason Hammel, who earned his first major league save on Wednesday, told the Rays’ official Web site. “… I can’t even talk right now. I’m still coming down from cloud nine.”
Tampa Bay had the opposite experience, though, once it arrived in New York to finish its nine-game road trip. After the opener was postponed by rain, it looked like the Rays were on their way to a doubleheader sweep Saturday, winning the first game 7-1 and leading 4-1 in the nightcap. But three errors helped erase that lead and Tampa Bay fell 6-5, then dropped the finale 8-4 on Sunday.
“It’s never good to lose a series,” manager Joe Maddon said. “It was obviously a tough road trip … not easy at all.”
Boston (88-61), meanwhile, bounced back nicely after the disheartening end to its series with the Rays. The Red Sox hosted Toronto for a four-game set that began Friday, though the sight of the Blue Jays hadn’t been a welcome one for manager Terry Francona’s club - they’d lost seven of 11 heading in.
But Boston finally figured out Toronto, winning three of four games, including a 4-3 victory on Sunday. The Red Sox now hit the road for six - three at Tampa Bay followed by their final three meetings with the Blue Jays.
“I think it will be as intense as it when (the Rays) were here,” said outfielder Jason Bay, who homered twice last week against Tampa Bay. “We kind of owe them a little bit.”
The opener at Tropicana Field features a pair of pitchers who don’t typically pitch deep into games despite often looking unhittable. Daisuke Matsuzaka (16-2, 2.97 ERA) will take the mound for Boston, and his two starts against Tampa Bay this season have illustrated his control issues despite his impressive repertoire.
Matsuzaka (0-0, 3.60 against the Rays) has pitched five innings in each start, walking nine batters. He gave up five free passes and three runs on Tuesday, getting a no-decision in the Rays’ 5-4 win.
His opponent that day was Scott Kazmir (11-6, 2.99), who he’ll also face on Monday. Kazmir has pitched more than six innings once in his last 16 starts. That’s exactly how long he went on Tuesday, giving up two runs and five hits.
Kazmir is 3-0 with a 2.15 ERA in his last five outings. In three starts spanning 15 innings against the Red Sox in 2008, he is 0-1 with a 5.40 ERA.