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For Rays, a costly trip at Trop

Being removed in the sixth inning - when the Sox took the lead - didn’t sit well with Tampa Bay starter David Price. Being removed in the sixth inning - when the Sox took the lead - didn’t sit well with Tampa Bay starter David Price. (Mike Carlson/Associated Press)
By Nick Cafardo
September 4, 2009

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ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. - You just figured this would be a better series. You figured Tampa Bay would fight and claw to get back in the wild-card race playing at Tropicana Field, where they’d beaten the Red Sox 13 out of 15.

But the Rays could not find enough of that 2008 magic when they needed it most.

They could have backed up management’s decision to trade Scott Kazmir to the Angels with a statement against the Red Sox, but when they lost the first game of the series - the one Kazmir would have started - you knew this might not be pretty.

While Kazmir continued to look like a pitcher who has found his stride - though he lost a tough game to Seattle and King Felix (Hernandez) Wednesday night - David Price, once a phenom, continued to look like a pitcher who needs more seasoning, getting beaten by Clay Buchholz.

When all was said and done, the Rays dropped a 6-3 decision last night and thus lost two of three to the Red Sox, making you wonder about baseball in this part of the country. Not even the Red Sox fans in this neck of the woods came out in full force for this series (and please don’t use the “kids are back to school’’ excuse).

Two of the three crowds in this series didn’t reach 20,000, and last night’s attendance was 20,823. After what the Rays did last season, and given how important this series vs. Boston was, you figured there’d be some electricity. But there was very little.

It can’t be a good atmosphere for players who are in the position of having to go from third place to second place. Instead of a long-term powerhouse, the Rays appear to be more like a small-market team that needs to go with young players. You wonder if they’ll become that perpetually rebuilding franchise that can never take the next step because they’re always developing.

The Sox, on the other hand, left the Trop six games ahead of the Rays in the wild-card race. They will play again three more times, Sept. 11-13, at Fenway, but don’t bet on that series meaning a whole lot. Are the Rays cooked? It may be a little too early to make that claim, but they needed to take two out of three and instead lost ground.

“Knowing that team and the people on it like I do, they’re capable of rattling off five, six, seven, 10 games in a row,’’ said Sox outfielder Rocco Baldelli, the former Ray. “So I would say this wasn’t devastating for them, by no means.

“It hurts them, because when they play at home, they expect to win at home, but there’s plenty of time for them to get back in and make it difficult on us. Nothing’s over.’’

That seemed to be the stance of Rays manager Joe Maddon, as well.

“It would have been nice to have won two out of three, but it’s not devastating,’’ the optimistic Maddon said.

Asked how his team could get back into the race down six games with 29 to go, he said, “Beat Detroit tomorrow.’’

Last year’s Rays seemed capable of doing that. And general manager Andrew Friedman alluded to the fact that the Rays often prove people wrong and have the chance to do so again. But this was the series to start that, and the bounces that often went their way in last year’s Cinderella season didn’t this time.

They needed Price to come up big, but he was flat.

“I was fortunate to get out of there with 5 1/3 innings and four runs,’’ he said. “I just wasn’t very good tonight, period. If you have that stuff against a team like Boston, the results aren’t going to be very good for you.

“I didn’t feel like I was really ready in the first inning, to be honest with you. I don’t know what it was. I didn’t feel good in the pen and it carried over.’’

Short of that Tampa magic recurring, the Sox’ competition for the wild card will come from the Rangers, who are three games behind.

A good thing for Boston is that Texas is without its best player, third baseman Michael Young, for at least two weeks with a hamstring injury. With four games in Chicago this weekend, the Sox have a chance to increase their lead. Having traded Jim Thome and Jose Contreras, the White Sox have raised the white flag on this season.

The Red Sox will find out some things about themselves this weekend as well. For one thing, can Paul Byrd continue to fool batters? Junichi Tazawa will start tomorrow if Tim Wakefield can’t because of his back issues, and finding out how much Wakefield will help in the final month is a significant piece of information.

On Sunday and Monday, Jon Lester and Josh Beckett will face the White Sox. Do we need to emphasize how important it is to see Beckett win a game for the first time in five starts and reassert himself as the team’s No. 1?

But at last the Red Sox conquered The Trop.

“Wins are wins,’’ said manager Terry Francona. “But I understand the significance of winning here. This is a tough place to play. They are good. To win here, you have to play clean baseball or you lose.’’

Nick Cafardo can be reached at cafardo@globe.com.

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