Even the return of staff ace Scott Kazmir could not stop Boston from re-establishing the pecking order in the American League East. The Red Sox handed the Rays a 7-3 loss at Fenway Park on Sunday, thereby putting the Rays on the receiving end of a sweep rather than pushing the broom. A week earlier, the Rays swept a three-game series from the Red Sox at Tropicana Field.
The Rays entered the weekend series tied for first place with the Red Sox and left Boston trailing the defending World Series champions by three games in the standings as they headed into an off-day before starting a three-game series in Toronto.
Kazmir appeared rusty from the outset while making his first start since experiencing inflammation in his left elbow early in Spring Training. The Rays left-hander and reigning AL strikeout king allowed four runs -- three earned -- on six hits, three walks, five strikeouts and a wild pitch in four innings to take the loss.
"Obviously, [Kazmir] wasn't as sharp as he can be," Rays manager Joe Maddon said. "[His] velocity [was] down just a little. Overall, he just couldn't find a good rhythm, [and] strike throwing wasn't as consistent as you'd like to see."
Though disappointed in his performance, Kazmir seemed encouraged to be back.
"[My] arm felt great," Kazmir said. "Maybe I was just doing a little too much. Everything was flying open. There were only six or seven pitches I was pleased with.
"It was just frustrating, because everything felt good in my warm-ups before the game, felt like I was staying closed," Kazmir added. "And as soon as the game started, that split second, maybe I was trying to get a little extra. ... I was battling myself the whole time. ... My body was flying completely open."
Kevin Youkilis' first-inning sacrifice fly scored Jacoby Ellsbury to give the Red Sox a 1-0 lead. Dustin Pedroia then singled to start the third, and Youkilis followed with a double to left. Kazmir uncorked a wild pitch to allow Pedroia to score before Manny Ramirez doubled off the Green Monster in left to drive home Youkilis and give the Red Sox a 3-0 lead.
The Red Sox added another run in the fourth, when Pedroia grounded out to score Coco Crisp and give Boston a 4-0 lead. Kazmir, who was slated to toss no more than 100 pitches, didn't take the mound in the fifth after hurling 90 pitches over four innings.
"Obviously, they got all those pitches after four innings," Maddon said. "But nevertheless a good first start because he looked healthy."
Kazmir wasn't the only Rays starter to get worked over by the Red Sox's veteran hitters. Boston exercised its patience at the plate to wear down both Kazmir and James Shields, who started and lost Saturday night, which was personified by the fact Tampa Bay's best two starters combined to throw 188 pitches in 7 2/3 innings.
"They worked us pretty good," Maddon said. "They worked our starters pretty well."
Jon Lester started for the Red Sox and pitched five scoreless innings before Carlos Pena connected for his seventh homer of the season with one out in the sixth. Akinori Iwamura's RBI triple off Manny Delcarmen in the seventh drove home Jason Bartlett to cut the lead to 4-2. Carl Crawford then brought home Iwamura when he singled off Hideki Okajima to make it 4-3.
Youkilis answered for the Red Sox in the bottom of the seventh with a leadoff home run off Dan Wheeler to give Boston a two-run cushion.
Other than Kazmir's return, the best news of the day for the Rays was having B.J. Upton back in the lineup after he missed the first two games with a strained left shoulder. Afterward, Upton said the shoulder felt fine, though mentally he fought the idea of swinging and feeling the shooting pain he experienced Thursday when he incurred the injury while swinging at a pitch. The Rays' talented center fielder said Sunday's loss should not haunt the team as it goes forward.
"We didn't really play too well [this weekend], though we didn't play too bad," said Upton, who went 0-for-3 Sunday. "It's just baseball. It's something we've got to work through. We've got a day off to recover and get our minds right again. And we'll be back at it Tuesday."
Maddon expressed a similar opinion about this year's team.
"I don't see [being swept] as being devastating to this group at all," Maddon said. "I think they understand what just happened. We got beat by a good team. We beat them last weekend. I think both of these teams realize that we could beat each other and you have to pitch and play well with intensity or you're going to lose."
Bill Chastain is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.