ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. - For three straight nights, it was easy to forget that this is still a place with a fish tank in center field, as opposed to the next stop on the Red Sox' itinerary, the one with the hallowed monuments.
No one has yet to be awarded the World Series trophy by the Fourth of July. Sox fans need only recall 2006, when Boston led the Yankees by four games on the Fourth and not only failed to win the division, but missed the postseason altogether. More recently, the four leading playoff contenders in the National League on the Fourth last season - the Mets, Brewers, Padres, and Dodgers - all failed to qualify for the tournament.
Still, the Tampa Bay Rays, the team that doesn't have a single player leading the American League in dangling chads on the All-Star ballot, served notice yet again to the Sox that they are a team not to be taken lightly, especially under the big Trop.
Before a cowbell-waving sellout crowd of 36,048, Boston was swept by the Rays, losing its fifth straight game, 7-6, despite four extra-base hits by Dustin Pedroia, who had a home run, triple, and two doubles in becoming the first Sox second baseman to pull off that feat, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.
The Rays are 20 games over .500 for the first time in franchise history (52-32). Last season after 84 games, they were 18 under .500. The Sox, who began this trip in first place, head to the Bronx 3 1/2 games behind the Rays, closer Jonathan Papelbon never getting out of the bullpen after vowing that some scores still needed to be settled after last month's brawl.
"They took it to us," said manager Terry Francona, whose team has not beaten the Rays in six tries under a Teflon sky this season. "They beat us three games in a row. We came here to win, and we didn't do a very good job."
The Rays, trailing, 4-1, scored six times in the seventh, reliever Manny Delcarmen's failure to cover first base on an infield hit touching off an avalanche of base runners. "When you see me out in the field that much," said Francona, who made three trips to the mound to change pitchers that inning, while the Rays sent 11 men to the plate, "you know something's not going right.
Delcarmen had given up a leadoff double to Jason Bartlett, who stole third. The Sox reliever then broke belatedly from the mound when Akinori Iwamura hit a ground ball to the right of first baseman Kevin Youkilis.
"You don't know [what happens] if he gets over," Francona said. "The run scores and the bases are empty. That's why we talk about those things. Things would have been vastly different."
The ninth inning, which offered a glimmer of hope when leadoff batter Manny Ramírez reached on a throwing error by Bartlett at shortstop and Mike Lowell followed with a single, ended hideously for the Sox. Rays center fielder B.J. Upton, his back to the plate, went to the wall in right-center to outrun Youkilis's bid for extra bases. "Not many people make that play," Rays manager Joe Maddon said. "In that one play, he demonstrated his athleticism. It's Willie Mays-esque."
Then, with Varitek at the plate, Lowell set off for second on a hit-and-run. The first time, Varitek whistled a foul down the first base line. The second time, he foul tipped the pitch from Dan Wheeler, catcher Dioner Navarro held on, and Navarro easily gunned down the lead-footed Lowell.
"I know it's a glaring moment in the game," Francona said. "But I felt good about it. I know I carried the thought that it was going to work."
That left Varitek the last man standing for the second straight night, and for the second straight night, he went down on strikes, this time taking a called third strike from Wheeler. Three whiffs and a grounder to short extended Varitek's slump to 0 for 17.
"I'm just going to have to get it done," said Varitek, stoically turning his chair to face his inquisitors, as he does night after night regardless of the game's outcome. "This team did a great job of battling back and giving ourselves a chance to win. I put it on my shoulders."
The Rays, who in the course of the series lost closer Troy Percival to the disabled list (aggravated hamstring) and with their bullpen already taxed to the max, got only five innings out of lefthanded ace Scott Kazmir, who left trailing, 4-1. But with Daisuke Matsuzaka also only good for five (five walks, 101 pitches offsetting his meager yield of two hits), the Rays still managed to overtake the Sox with an ear-splitting rally against Delcarmen and Craig Hansen, the latter hastily waved into the game when Delcarmen gave up three straight hits.
Hansen fared no better, walking the first two batters he faced before Evan Longoria, the rookie who in this series looked like a guy prepping for his plaque in Cooperstown instead of someone with a half-season's experience, launched a two-run double that put the Rays in the lead, 5-4. Bartlett's second hit of the inning, a two-run single off Javier Lopez, made it 7-4.
The Sox blew a chance in the fourth to provide Matsuzaka with an even bigger cushion because of a bit of foolishness by Julio Lugo, who didn't have to slide out of the basepath to ensure that swifty Jacoby Ellsbury would make it down the line in time to beat a double-play relay. But Lugo went straight for Bartlett, who was not within arm's length of second base when Lugo made contact. Second base umpire Sam Holbrook correctly judged Lugo guilty of interference, resulting in an inning-ending double play that nullified a run, and also took the bat out of Pedroia's hands with two runners potentially still on base.
"It's bad to take a run off the board, with [Pedroia] coming up where they had to pitch to him," Francona said.
Even before last night, the Sox were assured of no better than second place when they begin a four-game series against the Yankees tonight.
If there was any comfort for the Sox, it was this: The Rays play just 18 times at home after Aug. 7. The Sox have 25 games at Fenway Park after that date.
"It reaffirms to us that we can beat these guys," Maddon said of the sweep. "Now we need to do it at Fenway."
Gordon Edes can be reached at email@example.com.