On Tuesday night, they opened a two-game set against the Red Sox with what began as a pitchers' duel between James Shields and John Lackey, but the contest took a bad turn for the Rays in the fifth, resulting in an 8-5 loss at Fenway Park with 38,013 watching.
After holding the best record in the Major Leagues for 63 days at the start of the season, the Rays have struggled in June with a 10-14 mark. On May 23, Tampa Bay had a six-game lead on the Yankees with a 32-12 record; the club has gone 12-20 since. The Rays now find themselves in third place in the American League East, three games behind the first-place Yankees and one behind the second-place Red Sox.
Shields' only problem in the first four frames came via the disciplined bats of Boston's hitters, who worked the Rays right-hander for 44 pitches in the first two innings. Other than that, he appeared to have good enough stuff to handle the fifth-inning jam he faced when the Red Sox had runners at second and third with one out.
Shields retired Daniel Nava swinging for the second out to bring up David Ortiz, which prompted a mound visit from Rays manager Joe Maddon. Ortiz headed into that at-bat with a .379 career batting average against Shields, including two home runs and eight RBIs. Meanwhile, the following hitter, Kevin Youkilis, was 3-for-30.
With first base open, the Rays could have intentionally walked Ortiz to face Youkilis, but they opted to pitch to Big Papi and that turned out to be the wrong choice. Ortiz connected on the first pitch and deposited the baseball over the wall in right field for his 17th home run of the season and a 3-0 lead.
"Joe came out and he asked me who I'd rather face, and I told him I wanted to face Ortiz, but I wasn't going to throw anything over the dish," Shields said. "I was going to try to intentionally, unintentionally walk him. Maybe he'd chase something. And I was trying to throw a fastball about a foot off the plate -- just kind of show him the fastball -- and I ended up yanking it right down the middle.
"I don't even know how I did it. I was literally trying to throw it about a foot off the dish. He was ambushing me. That was the turning moment in the game. I've got to do a better job right there of bearing down and executing my pitch."
Ortiz said he was not surprised the Rays elected to pitch to him, and as far as his advantage against Shields goes?
"Some guys get you," Ortiz said. "You get some guys, simple as that."
Maddon pointed at the homer and thought out loud about the what-ifs.
"If you get beyond that homer, he might have been able to go six full there, and the game would have been entirely different," Maddon said. "We've talked about this from Day 1, that razor-thin line between winning and losing. And if he's able to execute his pitch right there, the homer doesn't happen and everybody's talking about what a wonderful night he had. So it really came down to that one pitch."
Shields has now lost his last seven starts, enduring a stretch in which his ERA has been 7.34 -- not counting the relief win he picked up on June 19 at Florida. Shields is the fourth Tampa Bay pitcher to lose at least seven straight starts. Joe Kennedy was the last to do it, when he dropped seven consecutive starts from July 8, 2001, to July 14, 2001.
"Tonight I felt great," Shields said. "As far as I was concerned, it was some of the best stuff I've had all year. My curveball was really good, fastball was down in the zone -- for the most part, except for that one fastball. I'm just having some bad luck right now, I guess. I just have to keep grinding it out. There are a lot of positive things I did tonight and I have to build off that."
Jason Varitek and Nava had RBI singles for the Red Sox in the sixth to push the lead to 5-0.
The Rays had early scoring opportunities against Red Sox starter John Lackey in the third, when they had a runner at second with one out, and in the fourth, when they had runners on the corners with two outs. On both occasions, they failed to score.
Evan Longoria drove in a run in the seventh, but the Red Sox threw behind Carl Crawford when he rounded second base too far, and the Rays speedster was tagged out in a rundown to end the threat.
Lackey picked up his ninth win of the season, holding the Rays to just one run on eight hits while striking out three. The Rays did add on four runs in the final two innings -- two came via a two-run pinch-hit homer by Willy Aybar -- to make the Red Sox have to bring in closer Jonathan Papelbon to record the final out.
"I do like what we did late," Maddon said. "I liked it a lot. The fact that we kept fighting back and that was one of our better little runs, those [five runs] over the last three innings. So I was really pleased with that."
Bill Chastain is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.