Eric Wilbur's Sports Blog

'Bigger Than the Game' - Red Sox-Rays Rivalry Above All Others, With or Without David Ortiz

AP Photo

Forget about Thursday’s game, a near no-hitter by Marcus Stroman, the Strikeout King of Toronto.

Forget about what turned out to be an utterly disoriented series against the Blue Jays, against whom the Red Sox lost three out of four this week to plunge back into a mediocrity only temporarily made to seem a mirage with help from the White Sox and Royals. Despite Monday’s 14-1 outburst, the series was a useless blip in a trying season for the Boston Red Sox, languishing in last place in the AL East, 9 1/2 games behind the front-running Orioles, and yet still 6 1/2 games back in the wild card race.

Indeed, Thursday’s matinee in Toronto was but a speed bump to weekend intrigue, for on Friday night, the Red Sox travel to Tampa Bay to begin a three-game series against the scorching-hot Rays, winners of 25 of their last 36 games, with lingering memories of the shenanigans at Fenway Park earlier this season still fresh in the minds of both teams. And David Price, target of David Ortiz’s ire, just so happens to be starting the series opener. Whether or not Ortiz - suffering through back spasms that (conveniently?) have him listed as day-to-day - will as well, remains up in the air.

“It’s a war,” Ortiz said after Boston’s 3-2, 10-inning win over Price and the Rays on May 30. “It’s on. Next time he hits me, he’d better bring the gloves."

It was in late May, of course, that these two played into their rivalry with a brewing firestorm that nearly percolated into fisticuffs. At the center of the drama were Price, Ortiz, and Brandon Workman, who ended up serving a six-game suspension for his part in the histrionics all for throwing at - but not hitting - Tampa’s Evan Longoria, while Price escaped any wrath from Joe Torre’s office of discipline for plunking Ortiz with a 94-mile-per-hour fastball in the first inning of the same game. Workman was ejected from the contest. Price – who was warned after hitting Ortiz – was not, even after hitting Mike Carp in the fourth inning. He stayed in the game.

Ortiz was not pleased.

"I'm not going to get hit again,” he said. “Not by him. He did it on purpose. He punked me, and that's very disrespectful. I'm a grown-ass man. I've been around the league a long time, and I know how to take care of business on my own.

“You can’t be acting like a little girl out there all the time, you give it up, that’s an experience for the next time, but you gonna be acting like a little [expletive], every time you give it up, bounce back like that and put your teammates in jeopardy…. He knows he screwed up/ He did that on his own. No manager was [telling] him. No player was comfortable with the situation. He did that on his own, which is [expletive], he can get somebody else hurt. You can’t be doing that [expletive].”

The next day, Price did a sit-down with Fox prior to the network’s broadcast of the second game of the series, and threw kindling on the fire by noting that Ortiz thinks he’s above the rest.

“Sometimes, the way [Ortiz] acts out there, he kind of looks like he's bigger than the game,” Price said. “That's not the way it is, not the way it goes. ... Nobody's bigger than the game of baseball. You ask pitchers from 10, 15, 20 years ago -- that's normal, part of the game.”

So, here we are, both teams facing each other for the first time in almost two months, battling to leapfrog one another out of the AL East basement, and Ortiz leaving Thursday's 8-0 loss to Toronto in the ninth inning after swinging at a pitch. But the Rays are doing their best to leave the Sox in the dust. Tampa’s hot streak is bordering on historic. Only three teams in major league history have reached the .500 mark after managing to fall 18 games below: The 1899 Louisville Colonels (22 under), the 2004 Devil Rays (18 under), and the 2006 Marlins (20 under). The Rays are only four wins away from joining them, and will be the first of the teams to be jolted directly into a playoff race, thanks to the presence of a second wild card.

Meanwhile, Boston’s midsummer gasp at relevancy took a hit north of the border, where the Sox exploded for 14 runs Monday night, only to do their typical disappearing act for Jake Peavy and play one of their ugliest affairs of the season the next two evenings, respectively. The Rays are still 7 1/2 games out in the division, but amazingly - at 49-53 - only 4 1/2 games out of the wild card race, which might put a damper on the trade rumors for Price in advance of next week’s non-waiver trading deadline.

It’s perhaps fitting that we get this series, one day after the 10-year anniversary of the Alex Rodriguez-Jason Varitek incident at Fenway Park, a moment that was the height of the modern Boston-New York rivalry, and helped propel the resilient Red Sox on their way to their first World Series win in 86 years. If that’s a reminder of just how stale the Red Sox-Yankees rivalry has become though, it says nothing toward the pure dislike the Rays and Sox possess for each other in the present.

Just this year alone, we’ve had:

- A day-night doubleheader that the Red Sox forced on the Rays (who wanted to reschedule a rainout for an April 30 game later in the season) because they happened to have thousands of Dustin Pedroia bobbleheads to give away.
- A philosophical difference in the baseball “code” of stealing third base, as Yunel Escobar managed to do with an 8-3 Tampa lead in late May.
- The aforementioned Price-Ortiz-Workman “war.”

This is beautiful.

It’s rare that a pair of last-place teams ever bring this much intrigue into a pre-trade deadline series as the Red Sox and Rays do this weekend, and while it’s probably unlikely that anything is going to transpire as it pertains to Ortiz and Price, something will happen. These two teams can’t help themselves in that regard, and with the Red Sox coming off a disappointing series in Toronto, one which may have ultimately sealed their fate, they could be in a particularly punchy demeanor, in no mood for the resurgent Rays and their antics.

“I hope everybody enjoyed their bobblehead,” Rays infielder and player representative Ben Zobrist said after the Rays swept the “bobblehead twinbill” on May 1. The teams are 3-3 against each other since that incident, the Rays hold a 5-4 advantage overall with 10 more showdowns to come over the remaining 60 games.

There may be no pennant race in Boston’s future, but stinging the Rays 17 percent of the rest of the season is still…well, it’s something to look forward to at least.

"Growing up, the Rays were just kind of the punching bag for the Red Sox," said Alex Cobb, a Boston native and Tampa Bay pitcher said prior to last October’s American League Division Series between the two clubs. "Then it obviously started to take a turn in 2008, and it's grown into a pretty good rivalry.

"It's had its fair share of arguments, its fair share of battles for the top of the AL East. And it's just fueling the rivalry even more right now.”

One year later, and it’s even better. Just imagine if they were actually any good.

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