Now, the heat is squarely back on the Rays.
A tight victory stretched Boston’s AL wild-card lead over Tampa Bay back to four games, and it’ll send Jon Lester(notes) to the mound Saturday afternoon to try to deal what could be a crippling blow to the Rays’ postseason hopes.
When Tampa Bay (83-67) beat the Red Sox 9-2 on Thursday night - its ninth win in 12 games to shave a nine-game deficit in the wild-card race to three - much of the discussion focused on Boston’s potentially epic collapse.
That gave the Rays hope of leaving Fenway Park late Sunday in a tie with the Red Sox (87-63), but that’s no longer the case.
Despite Evan Longoria’s(notes) two-run, first-inning homer Friday, Boston bounced back with a 4-3 victory, pushing its lead to four as Tampa Bay manager Joe Maddon was ejected for arguing what he later called an “egregiously bad strike zone” from home plate umpire Hunter Wendelstedt.
Suddenly, the best the Rays can hope for is a two-game deficit - and two more losses could leave them six out with 10 to play.
“Listen, if we win the next couple of games, it’s not bad,” Maddon said. “Like we talked about coming in here, if we leave this ballpark being two down, that’s not so bad. … So let’s come back tomorrow and see what we can do, one game at a time.”
Boston, meanwhile, may have earned its most significant victory of the season.
“As tough as the last 10 days have been, playing in this atmosphere - this is why they work all winter,” manager Terry Francona said. “This is exciting. I was as nervous as can be.”
Even a split would present a dire situation for Tampa Bay, and the Red Sox will try to put the Rays on the ropes by handing the ball to Lester (15-7, 3.07 ERA).
Tampa Bay probably won’t be intimidated by the sight of Boston’s ace, however. The left-hander gave up four runs, eight hits and three walks Sunday at Tropicana Field while lasting four innings in a 9-1 loss - his first in more than a month.
“I didn’t have anything,” Lester said. “Just had no command of one pitch. Picked the wrong time to have one of these.”
That was Lester’s first loss during the day after coming in 7-0 with a major league-best 1.54 ERA. He’s 1-1 with a 2.57 ERA in a pair of home starts against the Rays this season.
On the surface, Lester facing Jeff Niemann(notes) (10-7, 3.97) appears to be the Red Sox’s first edge on the mound in the series, but that may not necessarily be the case. The 6-foot-9 right-hander is 1-0 with a 1.06 ERA in a pair of starts versus Boston since the All-Star break, allowing five hits in 17 innings.
Niemann has dominated some of Boston’s best hitters throughout his career. Ellsbury, Dustin Pedroia(notes), Adrian Gonzalez(notes) and Kevin Youkilis(notes) - the last of whom will sit again Saturday with a hip injury - are 4 for 35 lifetime against Niemann.
Niemann improved to 7-2 on the road with a 3.24 ERA - exactly 1 1/2 runs better than his home mark - by holding the Orioles to two runs over 7 2-3 innings Monday in a 5-2 win.