ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. - There were no warnings from the umpires ("Not a word," umpiring supervisor Jim McKean said), and no histrionics from either side.
Before the game, Red Sox manager Terry Francona, when he wasn't stonewalling questions about Manny Ramírez's knockdown of traveling secretary Jack McCormick, was reminiscing about signing his first pro contract for $100,000, after his mother cooked a turkey dinner for the Montreal Expos scout who'd come courting him. "I thought I'd never have to play again," he said. "I didn't believe I could be that wealthy."
Rays manager Joe Maddon, meanwhile, spent part of his day trying to cancel a debit card that someone in New York was using to buy gasoline. Given how much gas costs these days, Maddon said, "I'd rather they went to Tiffany's."
And then the Sox and Rays stuck to playing baseball, and the piercing thunder that could be heard outside Tropicana Field's Teflon dome was matched by the gathering storm inside. The Sox last night succumbed to the Rays - the devil-you-say, first-place, we-back-down-to-no-one, history-rewriting Rays - 5-4, before a crowd of 34,145 at the Trop that for the first time in memory had more folks cheering for the home side than for the Boston carpetbaggers.
The Rays survived the kind of freak play that would have spelled disaster for them in the past - a routine fly ball by Brandon Moss in the ninth that struck the "B" catwalk above the playing surface, turning a certain out into a run-scoring double.
"As much as I [complain] about this stadium, it almost helped us win a game," Francona said. "It was awkward. I was looking up, getting [Sean] Casey ready to hit for [Julio] Lugo, [Troy] Percival's in the game, all of a sudden, the ball, nobody really knows where it is, and all of a sudden we have a chance to win the game. I wish it had helped us win, but it was still a crazy play."
Jason Varitek followed with a sacrifice fly to make it 5-4, and more calamity for the Rays: graybeard closer Percival, something of a Yoda for the young and restless Rays, aggravated a left hamstring injury that had sent him to the disabled list earlier this season. Percival practically wrestled Maddon to stay in the game, but finally relented.
"I was frustrated about the ring shot and I was frustrated that my leg just popped again for the 12th time and I just needed to yell at somebody and he was there," Percival said. "I hate coming off the mound in the middle of an inning . . . but Joe did the right thing."
Maddon went to lefthander J.P. Howell, Casey did an about-face (Maddon said afterward he thought Casey had been announced), and it was up to Lugo, the former Ray who the day before had readily agreed this was the biggest series in Tampa Bay history.
Lugo worked the count to full, then lined to shortstop Jason Bartlett to end it.
"It's fantastic," said Percival, who was schooled in the art of winning when he starred for the Angels, and has returned for an improbable final act with Tampa Bay, a team that hired him a year ago to be a minor league pitching instructor because his elbow was so bad and now relies on him for last call.
"I don't care what happens, how it happens, if we get a win on a passed ball, I don't care as long as we keep winning. This team deserves to be there because we play hard."
The Rays, who have the best record in the majors (50-32), moved 1 1/2 games ahead of the Sox, who have now lost three straight and had beaten Tampa Bay six straight times, all at Fenway Park.
"I think we're trying to show the world and the major leagues that we're here to stay," said Rays pitcher James Shields, who proved a more tenacious fighter last night than when he tried to connect with Coco Crisp's chin almost a month ago.
Shields, who misfired on the punch he threw at Crisp after the Sox outfielder charged the mound June 5, inspiring a bench-clearing brawl that resulted in eight suspensions (Crisp is still serving his) and unfulfilled speculation that bad blood might bubble to the surface again last night, held the Sox to two runs on five hits in 6 1/3 innings.
Sox rookie Justin Masterson, meanwhile, was just shaky enough to invite educated guesses that he is about to be returned to Triple A Pawtucket in exchange for Clay Buchholz, who threw five more scoreless innings last night and has an 0.40 ERA in his last four starts.
B.J. Upton hit Masterson's first pitch for a home run, the first leadoff home run of his career.
"Fastball up and down the middle, and then it went over the fence," Masterson said. "Leadoff home run for them, that always gets the park excited."
He then paid dearly for two-out walks that were followed by a home run by Gabe Gross in the fourth and Carlos Pena's RBI double in the fifth. Rookie Chris Smith, with the decibel level in the Trop at near-unbearable levels (the Rays have a video of pro wrestler Brian Knobbs, a.k.a. one of The Nasty Boys, screaming at the top of his lungs to exhort the fans), lost his way in the seventh, walking the bases loaded, leading to Tampa Bay's fifth run.
Sox pitchers walked eight, five by Masterson, who has now walked nine in 12 innings over his last two starts.
"I don't think it's just youth - he's pitched some good games, but he is young," Francona said. "You could see him at times lose the plate one, two, three. That's part of maturing as a pitcher. He doesn't have a lot of innings."
Read between the lines, and that could well spell Pawtucket.
Shields set down the first 10 Sox before Dustin Pedroia beat out an infield hit with one out in the fourth. A walk to Ramírez with two outs and a base hit by Mike Lowell accounted for Boston's first run, tying the score.
But Masterson walked Dioner Navarro with two out in the fourth and Gross blasted a drive deep into the right-field seats to make it 3-1. The Rays added another run in the fifth, Pena doubling to the left-center gap to score Willy Aybar, who had walked.
J.D. Drew's 12th home run this month - only Jackie Jensen (14) and Ted Williams (13) have hit more in June for the Sox - cut it to 4-2 in the sixth but the Rays answered again in the seventh. After Smith loaded the bases, Jonny Gomes's force out brought home a fifth run.
And when it was over, lo and behold, the thunder had moved inside, the crowd on its feet in tribute.
"This team deserves to have that kind of support," Percival said. "Maybe not in the past, but now this team deserves it."