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All sunshine in one clubhouse

By Nick Cafardo
Globe Staff / July 8, 2010

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ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — Snapshot of the race to catch the Yankees in the American League East: One clubhouse, bold and confident; the other, broken and beaten.

A three-game sweep of the Red Sox has the Rays surging and the injury-ravaged Sox slipping.

Youth beat old age last night as 24-year-old David Price outpitched 43-year-old Tim Wakefield to earn his 12th win, but the Sox are now feeling the absences of Victor Martinez, Dustin Pedroia, and Jacoby Ellsbury as the offense starts to slump. Meanwhile, the absences of Clay Buchholz and Josh Beckett have made Boston too reliant on Wakefield and Daisuke Matsuzaka.

The Rays have won five straight and seven of their last eight, while the Red Sox have lost four straight and eight of their last 11 road games. The Rays, who have struggled at times, are starting to think of The Trop as home again. They improved to 22-10 (.688) against the AL East, best mark in the division.

So now what?

Do the Sox just finish out the weekend and hope they don’t fall farther back against a slugging Blue Jays team that will throw tough lefty Ricky Romero, hard-throwing righthander Brandon Morrow, and Jesse Litsch against Jon Lester, John Lackey, and Matsuzaka? Or will general manager Theo Epstein have to give up prospects to make a deal to save the day?

In a season of peaks and valleys, this is the latest hole from which the Sox must climb.

“I am mentally prepared for a dogfight the entire season,’’ said Tampa Bay manager Joe Maddon after last night’s 6-4 win. “I love playing in this division. That’s why it’s absolutely wonderful. It’s neat, awesome, prodigious.’’

It’s not so neat, awesome, and prodigious for the Sox right now, but Maddon believes Boston will get healthy and rise again.

“They have had a lot of injuries, but look at some of those guys. [Daniel] Nava triples [in the ninth]. [Darnell] McDonald [RBI double in the ninth] had a great [11-pitch] at-bat,’’ said Maddon. “They’ve done so well with that group. Both teams came in here with almost the same record and we’re fortunate to have come out of here with three wins. It’s just great to get our team going again. I knew we weren’t going to go at a 32-12 pace the entire year. It’s hard to maintain that pace, but we’ve been able to get back to playing well. You’re going to see the Red Sox do the same thing. There’s too much talent.’’

From a psychological point of view, the sweep was huge for the Rays, who host the Indians this weekend.

“[The Red Sox] are wounded right now and they aren’t at full strength,’’ said Maddon. “There’s always a rationalization of the process, but to win three games was important for us given the circumstances.’’

The Rays are getting some fantastic pitching. Price, who threw 90 percent fastballs, has risen to an elite level with a 12-4 record and a 2.42 ERA. He’s become everything the Rays thought he’d become and maybe more.

“Any sweep is big, and coming against Boston is probably bigger for us,’’ Price said. “It’s something we wanted and obviously we wanted to win the series but a sweep is even better. I knew I needed to come out and give us a strong outing. Our bullpen has been kind of taxed this week and a half and I knew I needed to give us seven or eight innings.’’

Maddon knows his team needs more offense, but he was pleased with the timely hitting and the six walks against Wakefield, whom he called the ultimate pro. The manager feels his bullpen is pitching well again. He had some tired arms last night so he used starter Matt Garza in the ninth. Garza gave up a walk and a hit but got Kevin Youkilis (the potential go-ahead run) to line to center to earn his first career save.

What gave Maddon a real boost was hearing his owner, Stuart Sternberg, say “money is no object’’ if the Rays need to acquire talent at the trading deadline. Sternberg made the remarks Tuesday, a subtle or not-so-subtle reminder to the Sox that the Rays could be in the market for the same players.

Asked whether it was the first time he’d heard that from his owner, Maddon said, “First time I’ve heard it expressed that way. And look, we’re always looking to augment our talent. We’re pragmatic and we keep it in the present with always that periphery vision to the future. I think it’s great for the players to hear that.’’

While Maddon acknowledged Boston’s ravaged roster, he said of his own, “we have a lot of young players in our lineup as well with Matt Joyce, Sean Rodriguez, and Reid Brignac, so we’re not exactly overflowing with veterans.’’

He said of the sweep, “The last time they came down here, they did that to us. They were right with us when they came into this building. I love the way we played. It started in Boston [split of a two-game series] and then Minnesota, where we did the same thing. We have to play better here.’’

Sox manager Terry Francona was his usual even-keeled self after the disastrous three days.

“This was disappointing for us,’’ he said. “We ask our guys to try to do their best, to do their best, and that’s exactly what they’re doing. We’ll get on a plane, regroup, and keep battling. This is actually kind of a fun group right now. This wasn’t a real fun three days, but this is a good group to work with. We’ll figure it out. We’ll find a way to figure it out.’’

Maddon said he would be surprised to see any one of the Big Three run away with it or fall too far back.

Right now, the Red Sox hope he’s right.

Nick Cafardo can be reached at cafardo@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @nickcafardo.

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