ST. PETERSBURG -- The day before Game 1 of the American League Division Series, Ben Zobrist sat in the visitors' dugout at Fenway Park and noted that the Rays weren't really that far away from being in the Red Sox's shoes.
If they'd hit a little better with runners in scoring position, pitched a little better and capitalized on a few more opportunities, maybe they would've won the AL East. Maybe they would've had home-field advantage. All they'd needed to do was play a little better against the Red Sox.
This series, then, was supposed to be the Rays' chance to turn around everything that went wrong over the course of 19 games during the regular season. Instead, it ended late Tuesday night, as did Tampa Bay's season, in a 3-1 defeat at Tropicana Field that reminded the Rays just how dangerous the Red Sox can be.
While their failures against Boston might stick with them heading into the offseason, there was little question inside the Rays' clubhouse that the Red Sox had earned their spot in the AL Championship Series.
"That's just a testament to how good that other team is. That team is fantastic. I would be shocked if they're not in the World Series and in it until right at the end," Rays reliever Jamey Wright said. "If they're not winning it, they'll be duking it out with somebody, I guarantee it."
It always seemed to be the Red Sox standing in the Rays' way. Boston took the season series, 12-7, and won three of four in the ALDS to eliminate Tampa Bay. The Rays' "swarming" offense came to a grinding halt every time a Red Sox pitcher took the mound. Tampa Bay hit just .179 with runners in scoring position in this series and batted .152 during the regular season.
"They're just good, man. They're good. They're the reason we're sitting here not winning right now. They beat us all season," Rays manager Joe Maddon said. "They beat us in a five-game series. I've got to give them credit.
"I want to give them a lot of credit, John [Farrell] and the entire Red Sox organization what they've done this year. Based on the difficulties they faced last year, obviously they made some wonderful decisions and they deserve to advance. I commend them."
Of course, for all the Rays' admiration for what the Red Sox did this season, there was even more frustration as they watched Boston's players and coaches celebrate on the Trop's turf. On Tuesday night, the Rays were a couple of hits away from sending the series back to Boston for Game 5. They were a passed ball and an infield single from putting together a remarkable bullpen effort against the Majors' toughest offense.
"That's painful, no doubt. I got out of the dugout as quickly as I could. That's never fun to do," Rays outfielder Sam Fuld said. "It's fun to be out there, but on the opposite end of the spectrum, it's painful to watch."
Starter Jeremy Hellickson, on the other hand, said it "doesn't matter who" ended the Rays' season, whether it was the Red Sox or anyone else. It just so happened to be the team that beat them more than any other opponent this season.
"They were really good. They didn't make any mistakes. You could see their grit," Maddon said. "I talked about it from Spring Training on, I think they've really promoted the character within that group, and they're just gamers. They've got a bunch of gamers over there. And that's what really I felt from the other side. On the other side, I think our guys were equally as tough. We have had a hard time hitting their pitching staff."
Arguably the two finest moments in Rays franchise history have come at Boston's expense: advancing to the 2008 World Series and capturing the 2011 AL Wild Card. After Jose Lobaton's walk-off win in Game 3 and the way Game 4 was setting up, it appeared Tampa Bay might add another chapter to the rivalry. But the Red Sox got even, winning their first postseason series since the 2008 ALDS.
"They play the game hard. Good talent over there, and they keep it real simple," Rays first baseman James Loney said. "They make you pay for mistakes you make, too."
In the end, perhaps the Rays made too many mistakes, or perhaps Boston simply did a better job taking advantage of its opportunities. But that was the difference between the Rays being in the Red Sox's shoes and being left to look toward next year.
"It's tough. It's sad for 29 teams to end the season," Wright said. "Only one team gets to be extremely happy, and we made it further than most."