With David Price on the mound in a crucial game against the Red Sox, the Rays may have tried to recreate the sentiments of last October. Instead, Tampa Bay is left feeling like October is as far away as it's been all season.
Tampa Bay's up-and-down 2009 season hit its deepest valley on Thursday, as Boston came into Tropicana Field and finished off the rubber match with a 6-3 win in front of 20,823.
The loss pushes the Rays to six games back in the American League Wild Card standings -- matching its furthest depression yet this season, and a daunting notion for a team still faced with one of the league's toughest September schedules.
And as Rays manager Joe Maddon continued to preach the attitude of taking one day at a time, it didn't match up with what seemed like a sullen postgame clubhouse.
"They outpitched us tonight," Maddon said. "They got a couple things to fall and we did not. That's how it works sometimes."
What was billed as a marquee matchup between two prized pitching prospects didn't quite live up to its ambitious hype. Neither Tampa Bay's Price or Boston's Clay Buchholz dazzled or fanned hitters as was expected. Both got off to flat starts in the first inning.
Price, who played such a prominent role against the Red Sox out of the bullpen in the 2008 AL Championship Series, never mimicked the muster he had last October. He picked up the loss on Thursday, tossing 5 1/3 innings with six hits, four runs, two walks and two strikeouts.
"I just wasn't very good. Period," Price said. "I didn't have command, didn't have my stuff, wasn't out there really mentally."
Buchholz was only slightly better, going six innings and allowing three runs on six hits. Boston relievers Billy Wagner, Daniel Bard and Jonathan Papelbon shut the Rays down over the final three innings. To make things worse, Tampa Bay did not record a hit after the fourth inning.
"I guess [Buchholz] settled in," Rays third baseman Evan Longoria said. "I thought we had decent at-bats, [but we] just didn't get the results. We hit balls hard at guys. The chips didn't fall in our favor today."
Ahead, 4-3, in the sixth inning, Boston had runners on the corners with one out. Maddon brought in reliever Chad Bradford to try and to force Victor Martinez to hit a ground ball. Martinez followed suit, but the chopper bounced over first baseman Carlos Pena's head to score a run. Kevin Youkilis followed with an RBI groundout to extend the Red Sox's lead to 6-3.
"Those are the kind of things that occur that just equals baseball," Maddon said. "From my perspective, Chad did a good job getting Martinez to hit the ball on the ground. It was unfortunate it just bounced over Carlos' head."
The slotting of Price to pitch the rubber match of such a crucial series seemed eerily coincidental, if not somehow fortuitous for Tampa Bay. Price has endured a rough rookie season as a starter so far. But he'd been pitching well coming into Thursday, and Maddon knew the southpaw could handle a pressure spot.
So Price lined up against Boston again, and while the stakes were not as do-or-die, Tampa Bay is running out of time and space to revive its postseason chances. Unfortunately for the Rays, however, he was unable to find his stuff.
"I gave us a chance to win, but when you're out there like that against Boston, or really any team, you're going to lose," Price said. "That's what teams like that do to you."
Tampa Bay also may have taken an emotional hit in the fifth inning, when center fielder B.J. Upton sprained his left ankle on a collision with Carl Crawford on a fly ball. Upton eventually walked off under his own power and received X-rays, which came back negative, in the clubhouse. He's listed as day-to-day.
The win was not to be, however, as the Red Sox seemed firmly set on putting the Rays in their rearview mirror for good.
Boston has had its demons at Tropicana Field recently, with only three wins in its past 18 games coming into Thursday. But the fourth win here may be enough to seal Tampa Bay's fate for 2009, as the postseason goes farther and farther into the distance.
Nonetheless, Maddon maintains his outlook as he has done all season: In baseball, there's always another game, none bigger than the rest. He's done looking too far into the past or the future.
If the bell hasn't rung for the Rays yet, though, it's certainly crunch time now.
"There are still 29 games left," Maddon said. "We're going to do this thing one day at a time, in spite of everybody wincing. And I believe in that and I want our guys to believe in that. We're going to come out and play Detroit tomorrow. That's as far into the future as I'm looking right now."
Zach Schonbrun is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.