Unfortunately for the Rays and their hopes of catching the Red Sox for the American League Wild Card spot, that last chance was brought to death by the strong right arm of Jonathan Papelbon in an 8-4 loss to the Red Sox with 17,692 watching at Tropicana Field.
With the loss, Tampa Bay dropped to six games behind Boston in the Wild Card race with just 31 games remaining in the 2009 season. Head-to-head, the Rays will face the Red Sox just five more times, twice at Tropicana Field and three times next week at Fenway Park. For the Red Sox, Tuesday night's win was only their third in their past 17 games at Tropicana Field.
Looking out of sync for most of the game -- particularly in the field where they made three errors -- the Rays trailed, 7-2, heading into the bottom of the eighth. To their credit, they did not quit.
Evan Longoria led off the inning with a bunt single against Hideki Okajima. Carlos Pena walked and Pat Burrell followed with an RBI single to left. Pinch-hitter Willy Aybar kept the rally going with a Texas leaguer into right and Dioner Navarro followed with a bloop single to right that scored the Rays' fourth run.
Boston manager Terry Francona had seen enough by that point and called on Papelbon to enter the game with no outs and the bases loaded.
First, the Red Sox closer struck out B.J. Upton to bring up Jason Bartlett, who entered the game leading the American League in hitting with runners in scoring position with a .400 average. Bartlett picked out a pitch he liked and hit a sinking line drive into center field. Jacoby Ellsbury got a nice break on the ball and decided to go for the catch. Fearlessly sliding to his right, Ellsbury came up with the baseball.
"That's one of those plays where you have to catch it," Ellsbury said. "If it gets by me, it's probably an inside-the-park home run, maybe at best, a triple. It's one of those plays you have to make. I got a good jump on the ball and I knew I could make it off the bat so I went for it. As I'm sliding, I tried to get my body in position to throw the ball thinking Pat's going to tag."
Carl Crawford then stepped to the plate and put together a quality at-bat, working the count to 3-2, which afforded the Rays the opportunity to start the runners. But the roar went silent when Crawford sent a drive out to left field that Bay hauled in for the third out.
"I was doing anything to keep the at-bat alive," Crawford said. "He got the best of me there. We were hitting Okajima pretty good, or they were finding base hits and I guess [Francona] didn't want to take a chance and brought [Papelbon] in early."
Opposing hitters are now 1-for-15 against Papelbon with the bases loaded this season, of which 10 of the outs have been strikeouts. The Red Sox closer remained in the game in the ninth to earn the first two-inning save of his career.
"It looked like the game was going to be won or lost in the eighth," Francona said. "If it proved to be really taxing [in the ninth], we'd bring somebody else out. He got out of the inning with no runs and came back and finished the ninth."
Earlier in the game, J.D. Drew dropped the big blow on the Rays when he hit a two-run homer in the fourth off starter Andy Sonnanstine, who took departed Scott Kazmir's place in the rotation to make his first Major League start since being optioned to Triple-A Durham on June 27. The right-hander surrendered five runs on eight hits in four innings, but just three of the runs were earned thanks to errors by Akinori Iwamura and Pena.
"The home run to Drew hurt a little bit," Maddon said. "If we had supported him a little bit better, he would have pitched deeper into that game. I thought he did fine. I thought he threw the ball well."
Pena accounted for half of the Rays' offense with an RBI single and his AL-leading 39th homer of the season. But his work proved to be the only blemish on the line of Red Sox starter Jon Lester, who struck out nine in six innings to earn his 11th win of the season and break the franchise record for most strikeouts by a left-handed pitcher in one season. Bruce Hurst set the mark in 1987 with 190 strikeouts and Lester now has 196 for the season.
"Tough game," Maddon said. "I'm really pleased with the way we played with the effort tonight. We didn't get it done, but I thought we fought until the very end."
Bill Chastain is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.