BOSTON (AP) — Three games out. Eleven left to play. And the Tampa Bay Rays mean it when they say the next one is the most important of all.
“We are definitely playing playoff baseball right now and we’re not even in the playoffs yet,” manager Joe Maddon said Saturday after the Rays beat Boston 4-3 to trim the Red Sox lead in the AL wild-card race to three games.
“I love the fact that we do have a bunch of tough guys. … When you’re playing this time of year for all the marbles, you can’t be intimidated by the opponent or the venue,” he said.
Ben Zobrist hit a two-run homer off Jon Lester, and Jeff Niemann (11-7) pitched five solid innings to give Tampa Bay its seventh win in its last eight games against Boston, including two of three so far in this weekend’s four-game series. The Red Sox have lost 10 of their last 13 games since Sept. 3, when they led the wild-card race by nine games.
Tim Wakefield faces Tampa Bay’s David Price in the series finale on Sunday.
“Of course the sweep was a great thought, and we lost that possibility (Friday),” Maddon said. “But three out of four ain’t bad, either. I think that Mr. Meat Loaf intended the song to say that.”
With a victory over Boston on Sunday, the Rays would trail by two heading into the final 10 games. But they have seven of their last 11 against the first-place New York Yankees, and Boston has seven of its remaining games against the last-place Baltimore Orioles.
“This isn’t our first go-round at this,” Lester said. “We’ve got plenty of guys in that clubhouse that have been through it. It’s easier when you’re coming from behind than where we’re at. There’s no pressure. Obviously they’re doing a good job. We’ve just got to grind it out. That’s the attitude in that clubhouse. We’ve got to stay working and grind. We can’t worry about what’s being said about us or what’s going on.”
Matt Moore pitched three innings of relief, and Joel Peralta pitched the ninth for his fourth save.
“We’ve got to come back and try to get another one,” Peralta said. “I know we’ve got a tough road. I know we’re chasing, and we’re chasing a great team. But we’re playing great this month.”
Lester (15-8) went just four innings against Tampa Bay last Sunday, giving up four runs but throwing 111 pitches to lose for the first time in six starts. He was better this time, allowing four runs on five hits and four walks and striking out five in seven innings.
But the result was the same.
For the second straight night, the Rays got to Boston’s starter in the first. Desmond Jennings walked to lead off the game and scored on Zobrist’s homer off the top of the Green Monster. Tampa added another run in the third when Jennings doubled and, after moving up on a groundout, scored on a wild pitch.
The Red Sox made it 3-2 in the bottom half when Mike Aviles hit an RBI double and scored on a sacrifice fly, but Evan Longoria’s run-scoring single in the fifth made it 4-2.
Carl Crawford singled to lead off the seventh against Moore and scored on Jacoby Ellsbury’s groundout to cut the deficit to 4-3, but Moore fanned Dustin Pedroia with Ellsbury on third to end the inning.
David Ortiz hit a long fly ball off Moore in the eighth, but B.J. Upton caught it at the warning track in front of the Boston bullpen.
Aviles had three hits, including a single up the middle with two out in the ninth. But Peralta got Marco Scutaro on a grounder to third to end the game.
Boston is batting just .123 against Niemann, who gave up four hits in five innings, walking two and striking out six.
NOTES: Red Sox RHP Clay Buchholz, who hasn’t pitched since June 16 because of a back injury, threw 30 pitches off a mound and said he would still like to return this year if Boston makes the playoffs. … RHP Bobby Jenks said his pulmonary embolism is being treated with medication and he expects to be ready for the start of spring training. … Boston INF Kevin Youkilis missed his second straight game with a sports hernia. … Longoria has 12 RBIs in five games. …. Zobrist has 10 RBIs in 10 games after getting 1 in his previous 12. … Wakefield (7-6) is coming off his 200th career victory. He has 186 wins with the Red Sox, second to Roger Clemens and Cy Young, who are tied with 192.
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)