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Rays 7, Red Sox 2

Red Sox continue to slide

Rays take opener of crucial series, draw closer in race

By Peter Abraham
Globe Staff / September 10, 2011

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ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. - Rays manager Joe Maddon said last night’s game against the Red Sox at Tropicana Field had a playoff feel to it.

At least for his team it did. The Red Sox didn’t seem much interested in joining the festivities.

The September swoon continued for the Sox, who were beaten by the Rays, 7-2. That’s seven losses in the last nine games and suddenly a pennant race the Sox didn’t want is heating up.

The Rays trail by five games in the loss column for the American League wild card. The teams play twice more this weekend and four times at Fenway Park starting Thursday.

The odds remain overwhelmingly in favor of the Red Sox advancing to the postseason. But their play on the field this month suggests otherwise. A team that was one of the best in baseball for the better part of five months is now a desultory bunch, seemingly content to milk a lead that is growing smaller by the day.

“We have to get back to playing good baseball. We’ve got to win games,’’ second baseman Dustin Pedroia said. “We’re trying our hardest but we didn’t play very well tonight. We have to come out and play better tomorrow.’’

That will be a test. The Rays have Rookie of the Year candidate Jeremy Hellickson on the mound against September call-up Kyle Weiland. The Rays have won five of their last six games.

“They have a bunch of young guys. They’re going to play hard until the end,’’ said Sox left fielder Carl Crawford, a former Tampa Bay star. “They have all that energy. It’s their time of the year, they like to try and finish strong.’’

The Sox have one of the oldest teams in the league and they look it. Third baseman Kevin Youkilis and No. 3 starter Erik Bedard were back in Boston yesterday getting injuries checked out.

John Lackey started but lasted only three innings, felled by another poor start and a bruise on his left calf courtesy of a batted ball.

The Sox have a 6.44 earned run average in the last 10 games. The offense last night managed only six hits, five of them singles.

“We’re inconsistent right now. We have one game when we score a bunch and then we come out and not,’’ manager Terry Francona said. “All teams go through that. We’ve got to fight through it. We are a little banged up. But, OK, we have to find ways to win. Sometimes it’s harder to win than other [times]. Doesn’t mean you can’t do it.’’

Wade Davis (10-8) went the distance, striking out eight without a walk. Outside of the sixth inning, when the Sox scored two runs on three hits, he did not let a runner advance to second base.

The Sox are hitting .170 in 12 games against the Rays this season and averaging 3.08 runs.

Lackey (12-12) gave up five runs on five hits and three walks, all of the runs coming with two outs. His earned run average is up to 6.30.

John Jaso did the damage, belting a three-run homer in the second inning and then hitting a ball hard up the middle in the third that struck Lackey in the left calf.

The third inning was a good example of how the Red Sox have been playing of late. With two on and two outs, Johnny Damon hit a sharp ground ball down the first base line. Adrian Gonzalez made a nice play and from his knees threw to Lackey.

But the pitcher hesitated before going to cover first and Damon beat him to the base. Evan Longoria kept running hard and scored from second as Lackey made a late throw to the plate.

“I thought it was going to be down the line. Adrian made a nice play. I should have been there,’’ Lackey said.

Ben Zobrist took third on the play and scored on a single by Matt Joyce.

Lackey was walking with a limp after the game but hopes to make his next start, which is scheduled for Wednesday.

“I don’t think it will affect that. I told them I could keep going back out there,’’ he said. “But obviously I wasn’t pitching very well so that wouldn’t have helped us much anyway.’’

The Sox had a poor start to the season and recovered. Now they have to do the same, this time at the end of the year.

“They’re a good ball club, they know what the stakes are, they know where we are at and I’m sure there is some feeling of urgency on their side as well,’’ Longoria said. “At least we hope that.’’

Red Sox fans can relate to that thinking.

Peter Abraham can be reached at pabraham@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @peteabe.

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