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Quit thinking they’ll go away

We’re likely in for a wild finish

By Nick Cafardo
Globe Staff / September 16, 2011

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Do you get the sense that the Rays don’t think the Red Sox are their superiors?

They’re 10-5 now against the Townies.

They swept the Sox at the Trop, and won the first of a four-game set last night at Fenway. Now, we expected as much given that the pitching matchup was Rookie of the Year candidate Jeremy Hellickson against fill-in Kyle Weiland.

Are we surprised at the lopsided nature of the outcome, a 9-2 loss? Sort of, only in that we expected more from a Red Sox lineup that created some excitement because Adrian Gonzalez (calf) and David Ortiz (back) were back. But the Sox got no desired lift from the two stars.

The upshot is that the Rays are three games back. There are three head-to-head matchups left here. It’s Josh Beckett making his return from a sprained ankle vs. James Shields tonight. It’s Jon Lester vs. Jeff Niemann tomorrow afternoon. It’s Tim Wakefield vs. David Price in the finale on Sunday.

Is a Tampa Bay sweep possible, making it even? We expect that won’t happen, but you could see Shields and Price coming up big. If they take three of four, and that’s the worst the Rays can do and remain a factor, they would leave here two games behind the Sox, and catching Boston would be plausible if they can play this way in the majority of the seven games they have left with the Yankees.

And if the Red Sox continue to have a horrible September (losing eight of their last nine games), then the Rays could do the improbable.

Put it this way, the Rays are making this interesting. They spit up against the Orioles, losing two of three, and could have come in here much closer to the Sox. They are taking it, and we hate to use this cliché, one game at a time, and it seems to be working.

Manager Joe Maddon has no answers as to why the Rays have dominated the Sox this season. He does point to the pitching, and with good reason. The Red Sox can’t hit the Rays.

The Sox are batting .178 against the Rays in 2011. Since 1946, the lowest the Sox had batted against any team in a season was .204 against the Orioles in 1966. The Rays have held the Sox to a .162 average at Fenway. The Sox have lost their last six games against the Rays by a combined score of 41-12.

“Both teams just know each other so well,’’ said Rays center fielder B.J. Upton.

The big thing is, with a payroll disparity of about $120 million, the Rays are getting tremendous bang for their buck. The Red Sox? Not so much.

When asked about the David vs. Goliath analogy, especially where payroll was concerned, Upton said, “You would say that in the past, but they know we have a good team. We’re not looking at payroll or anything like that. They know we’re a good team and we know how good they are. We like the matchup. We’ve always been competitive with them.’’

Upton was part of what might become a signature play in this series. His third-inning grounder against Weiland, on which he shattered his bat, resulted in part of his bat and the ball going through shortstop Marco Scutaro’s legs.

“I’d never seen that before,’’ Upton said. “Next thing I know I look up and I’m on base and [John] Jaso is scoring.’’

That led to Evan Longoria’s three-run homer. And the Rays were off and running behind Hellickson.

“It was great for that to be a single,’’ said Rays designated hitter Johnny Damon. “I hit one 370 feet and it’s an out.

Maddon said the bat and ball going through Scutaro’s legs was a sign from the baseball gods. Asked whether it could be a signature moment, he said, “I can only hope.’’

Maddon has his players believing they can pull this off. He said their belief “is at a level that’s sufficient. We’ve played them well the last four times. We’ve earned the right to be positive entering our next game against them.’’

Damon is excited about what the Rays are doing this season and wants to return. Whether the Rays make the playoffs or not, “I’ve had the greatest time here,’’ he said. “It’s fun here every day we come to the ballpark. I’ve enjoyed the experience and my family has, as well.’’

Damon doesn’t want to get overconfident, knowing how rapidly things can change.

“We’re still trailing by three games and Beckett has been tough against us,’’ he said. “We have to continue to put pressure on them. If we surrender a couple of games it puts us deeper into the hole. If we don’t beat them we have an uphill battle with seven games left against the Yankees and three against the Red Sox. Toronto has also played us tough.’’

Damon predicts the wild-card race “could come down to the last couple of days.’’

When asked what he thinks the Red Sox are feeling, Damon referenced Ortiz’s reaction after Boston was swept in Tampa Bay earlier this month, saying the Sox were in panic mode.

“We just need to keep doing what we’ve been doing,’’ Damon said.

Maddon is a manager who lost most of his bullpen, his All-Star left fielder (Carl Crawford), and his power-hitting first baseman (Carlos Pena) in the offseason. In addition, the Rays traded righthander Matt Garza to the Cubs and shortstop Jason Bartlett to the Padres.

All of that and they’re contending with the Red Sox for the wild card.

“You can’t ask to be in a better place,’’ said Upton, “from where we came from.’’

The question is, where are they going? Will they take the journey all the way to the bitter end and make the Sox sweat even more than they’re sweating now?

The Rays will not go away. If the Red Sox are going to take this, they need to take it the next three days. Don’t let this team hang around too long.

Because since Day One, Maddon has gotten every ounce of effort from a group of players who don’t seem to care what their paychecks say.

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

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