ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – It would be unfair to label it The Flop in The Trop, but in the midst of the cowbells and catwalks, it took just one night for the Tampa Bay Rays, who are new to all this, to surrender the one advantage that was supposed to carry them deep into October.
It's gone, now, this notion that under their own big top, the Rays cannot be beaten. You have to go back to the '98 New York Yankees, a team that played its way into any greatest-team-ever conversation, to find a team that had won more games at home in a single year.
The Rays have won 59 times here in 2008, including two wins over the Chicago White Sox in the American League Division Series. They won 20 of their last 22 series at home. They swept the Boston Red Sox here twice, and won eight of nine games overall against them, a far cry from the days (2002) when Boston came in and beat them all 10 times they met.
That all went away Friday night, when Boston's Daisuke Matsuzaka nearly went Don Larsen on them – "I'm sorry,'' Carlos Pena said, "what does that mean?'' – taking a no-hitter into the seventh in a 2-0 win that Boston's bullpen preserved with six big outs.
The Rays were 1 for 8 with runners in scoring position. They left the bases loaded in the first inning. They failed to score after singles by Carl Crawford and Cliff Floyd broke up the no-no and put runners on the corners with none out in the seventh. They came up empty again in the eighth despite leadoff singles by Aki Iwamura and B.J. Upton.
Twice, manager Joe Maddon gave his hitters the green light to swing at a 3-and-0 pitch. Evan Longoria popped a foul fly to right to end the sixth, and he is now 1 for 16 since connecting for two home runs and a single in his first three October swings.
"I looked in the dugout and got the sign,'' Longoria said. "Best chance I had all night, swinging at a 3-and-0 pitch in a one-run game. You know they're going to throw you a pitch over the plate. I just didn't put a good swing on it.
"You hit skids. It's just the way it goes. I'll get through it. It's one of those things.''
Pena, who hit a grand slam off Arizona's Dan Haren swinging at a 3-and-0 pitch earlier this summer, lined out to right in the eighth against Boston reliever Hideki Okajima, just before Longoria skidded into an inning-ending double play against Red Sox rookie Justin Masterson.
"I guess now we're going to have to win one there,'' said left-fielder Crawford, who thought he caught Kevin Youkilis' RBI double in the eighth, "to make it a series.''
That's assuming that after being mesmerized by Matsuzaka, the Rays can steady themselves Saturday night against Josh Beckett, who is a good bet to look more like the guy who chewed up last October than the rusty facsimile who huffed and puffed through five innings against the Los Angeles Angels in the division series.
That sore oblique muscle that caused Beckett to be pushed back to Game 3 of the division series? No longer on anybody's radar screen, said Red Sox pitching coach John Farrell, who said Beckett threw an "outstanding" side session here Wednesday.
"The reason I say outstanding is the feel and command of his secondary pitches was better than his pen prior to his first start,'' Farrell said, "and I think that's the benefit of him going out there and throwing 105 pitches, even if it was in just five innings.
"We'll see a guy who has better feel, better command and really is kind of getting back in shape again. That's the tough thing; he's been shut down three different times over the course of the year. That's extremely difficult to start, stop, start, stop, even though it's been over a six-month period.''
But while Beckett appears ready to go, Red Sox strongman David Ortiz intimated that the Rays did not look like a team ready for prime time Friday night.
"I'm the kind of guy, I watch everybody's faces,'' Ortiz said. "I've got the opportunity, because I don't have to go out there and play defense. And, I'm telling you, I saw faces tonight different than what I see in the regular season.
"I don't blame nobody. It's a lot of pressure right now in this game, because, you know, you have to win. That relaxed type of thing you have during the regular season – it wasn't out there tonight."
If James Shields was feeling the pressure, it didn't show. The man they call "Big Game" James delivered just that for the Rays, striking out J.D. Drew to leave runners on second and third in the first, and taking a 1-0 game into the eighth, when he left after Dustin Pedroia's one-out base hit. A second run was charged to him when Ortiz walked and Maddon left in lefty J.P. Howell to face Youkilis, who had Boston's best swings of the night (two doubles and a single) and hit the sinking liner that Crawford could not come up with.
"You hate to waste one,'' Floyd said, "when our guy pitches one like that.''
Shields wasn't surprised that Matsuzaka survived his three first-inning walks, or that he was able to wriggle out of harm's way later.
"I thought we had a good chance,'' Shields said of the potential late-inning uprisings (the Rays had outscored the Red Sox, 18-4, from the seventh inning on this season in the Trop), ''but Daisuke has been good all year. Guys are hitting like .100 against him [actually a big-league low .164] with runners in scoring position.''
Several Rays talked about how Matsuzaka often pitches "backward," meaning he'll throw his off-speed stuff when he falls behind in the count. Shields, asked how many pitchers he knew shared that approach, chuckled. "I do it myself,'' he said.
"That's life in the American League East, man. You've got to. The National League, it's a little different ballgame.''
Floyd disputed the suggestion that the 3-and-0 swings were acts of desperation: "The guys swinging 3-and-0 are the guys you want swinging 3-and-0. You got Carlos, and the stud over there [Longoria]. If we'd gotten a hit, everybody would have said how great it was.''
Whatever tightness Ortiz said he detected on the field, the Rays were more inclined to call a function of trying to hit Matsuzaka.
"He's got one pitch that moves away and one that cuts in on you and a slow curveball and a changeup and a rising fastball,'' Pena said. "He's got, like, 45 pitches. I don't know how [Jason] Varitek can give him signs.''
An endless supply of pitches for Matsuzaka, a dwindling number of chances left for the Rays. Funny how one loss, when it comes in the place you never lose, can make a seven-game series feel like sudden death.