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Rays 4, Red Sox 3

Stinging loss

Rays inflict more pain, get back within 3 games of Red Sox

Jon Lester circles the mound while the Rays’ Ben Zobrist rounds the bases after his two-run homer in the first inning. Jon Lester circles the mound while the Rays’ Ben Zobrist rounds the bases after his two-run homer in the first inning. (Barry Chin/Globe Staff)
By Peter Abraham
Globe Staff / September 18, 2011

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You don’t necessarily need to look at the scoreboard to know something is wrong with the Red Sox.

Take the fifth inning of yesterday’s 4-3 loss against the Tampa Bay Rays. Jacoby Ellsbury was at second base with two outs and Dustin Pedroia up. Given his speed and that he would be running on contact, Ellsbury scores easily on a hit.

But Ellsbury tried to steal third and was caught by pitcher Jeff Niemann, the pickoff throw beating him to the base. The inning was over and the Sox had missed a chance to score in a game they ultimately lost by a run.

“It’s a situation where he’s probably trying to do too much. It wasn’t necessary,’’ manager Terry Francona said. “His intentions were good, [but] it was ill-advised. If you’re going to run in that situation, it’s got to be 100 percent. He knows that.’’

Ellsbury had left the clubhouse by the time reporters were allowed in after the game.

In the third inning, Sox starter Jon Lester was pitching carefully to Evan Longoria with a runner on third and two outs. He walked Longoria, throwing a curveball in the dirt. But the ball skipped past catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia and a run scored.

“It comes down to executing pitches and I didn’t do that for the majority of today,’’ Lester said.

In the third inning, Carl Crawford scored from first on a double but was nearly out because he failed to slide. Francona felt that the on-deck hitter, Marco Scutaro, did not give the proper signal. Scutaro said he did.

These kinds of mistakes, both mental and physical, have added up to a 4-12 September for the Sox. They lead the Rays by three games in the wild-card standings with 11 games to play and will likely hold on. But if the Sox don’t start playing better, it will be short stay in the postseason.

“We need to play better,’’ said David Ortiz, who left the clubhouse wearing a down vest to ward off the fall chill that should come as a signal to the sleepy Sox. “That’s really it.’’

The Sox stemmed their collapse with a much-needed victory Friday night. With Lester on the mound, a bit of momentum seemed possible. But Lester (15-8) allowed four runs on five hits and four walks over seven innings to go along with that wild pitch.

“It was pretty obvious he wasn’t commanding like he can. It was a lot of deep counts,’’ Francona said “He’s so good and he competes so much that he finds a way to get you that deep in the game. But he’s not hitting his spots as consistently as he usually does.’’

Lester walked the first batter of the game, Desmond Jennings, on four pitches. With two outs, Ben Zobrist drove a ball just over the wall in left for his 16th home run.

“We had a 300-foot fly ball that goes out for a homer. That’s the difference in the game,’’ Lester said. “That’s the joy of playing at Fenway Park. It takes some away and gives some to other guys. If we’re in Tropicana, that’s an out.’’

The Rays scored what proved to be the winning run in the fifth inning on a single by Longoria, who has 13 RBIs in 15 games against the Sox this season.

Lester is 1-3 against the Rays this season, giving up eight runs on 13 hits and seven walks over 11 innings in his last two starts against them.

“I wouldn’t do a fire sale and say that they’re the greatest team and I’m the worst pitcher. I think they’ve done a good job the last two series against us,’’ he said.

Niemann had faced the Red Sox twice previously this season and allowed two runs on five hits over 17 innings. The 6-foot-9-inch righthander wasn’t as sharp this time, giving up two runs over five innings. But that was enough to improve to 11-7.

Down 4-2, the Sox got a run in the seventh off rookie Matt Moore on two singles, a ground out and a sacrifice by Ellsbury, who has 96 RBIs. Mike Aviles (3 for 4) singled with two outs in the ninth against Joel Peralta but Scutaro grounded to third to end the game.

The Rays are 11-6 against the Sox this season, 6-2 at Fenway. Tampa Bay has won seven of the last eight games in the series by a score of 49-22.

The season series ends today with Tim Wakefield facing David Price.

“We’ve come through so many times this year so we just got to keep going out there and grinding,’’ Saltalamacchia said. “We’re too good a team to not keep going.’’

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

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