The Rays needed this one.
Sounds silly, I know. It's only June. They still have nearly 100 games left. You should at least be somewhere near Labor Day before talking about must-wins and critical series.
But frankly, the Rays needed Tuesday night's 8-3 victory over the Red Sox for lots of reasons.
Let's start with this: It came what seemed like only a few minutes after Monday's punch-to-the-gut, 14-inning, 10-8 loss that the Rays had about a half-dozen chances to win.
Losses like that tend to leave a bitter aftertaste, and the Rays immediately washed that away with four homers and a solid pitching performance by Roberto Hernandez.
The victory also meant the Rays moved to within four games of the first-place Red Sox instead of falling six games behind, no insignificant detail regardless of what the calendar reads.
But here's why Tuesday's victory had a little more importance than just another game in the middle of the season: It came against a Red Sox team that has used the Rays as a chew toy in 2013.
The Rays went into Tuesday's game with a 1-6 record this season against the Red Sox — a record that simply will not do if the Rays expect to contend in the American League East later this summer.
Think of it this way: If the Rays were 6-2 against the Red Sox instead of 2-6, everything would be flip-flopped. The Rays would be in first place, and the Sox would be four games out.
"This is the one team that we've lost a lot of close games to," Rays manager Joe Maddon said.
"We've got to start tipping it to the other side."
If the Rays hope to win the American League East, they are going to have to go through Boston.
"Obviously, they're in first," said the Rays' Matt Joyce, who homered Tuesday, one night after being plunked by and then exchanging R-rated words with Red Sox pitcher John Lackey. "They've been playing well. We have a lot of respect for their team, the players on that team. But we've got to win. That's the bottom line."
Coming into this season, no one gave much thought to the Red Sox.
Following the whole fried-chicken-and-beer-in-the-clubhouse collapse at the end of the 2011 season, the Red Sox became a joke under manager Bobby Valentine last season.
They finished last in the American League East, losing 93 games — their most in 47 years.
They fired Valentine, hired manager John Farrell and picked up a few pieces in the offseason — veterans Mike Napoli, Shane Victorino and Jonny Gomes, for instance — but there was no reason to believe the Red Sox had suddenly become the team to beat in the East.
In fact, there were reasons to like every other team in the division ahead of Boston.
Some liked the up-and-coming Orioles team that arrived last season by making the postseason. The Blue Jays were the chic pick after a flurry of offseason activity. Some liked the Rays because of Maddon and all that pitching. And some liked the Yankees because, well, they're the Yankees and the Yankees are always in the mix.
But the Red Sox? Who had them?
"Well, honestly," Maddon said, "I didn't understand why so many people didn't think more of them."
Leave it to Maddon to be ahead of the curve.
The division is a huddled mass at the moment with the top four teams separated by only four games and only the Blue Jays out of the running. But it's the Red Sox who are setting the pace.
"They deserve to be in first place," Maddon said.
They are first in the majors in runs, second in slugging and third in batting average while their pitchers are in the upper half in the league in team ERA, quality starts and batting average against.
They have one of the best all-around players in the game in Dustin Pedroia. David Ortiz has turned the clock back about six years, and the rest of the roster is a nice mix of veterans, kids and those who have the good sense to wait until after the game to eat their KFC.
"I really have a lot of respect for that group in regards of how they play and who they are, Maddon said.
The Rays wrap up this three-game series tonight at the Trop then head to Boston next week for a three-game set. The teams also will meet in seven series after the All-Star break.
And with the way this race seems to be going, every single game against the Red Sox will be crucial, no matter where and when it's played.
Tom Jones can be reached at [email protected] and can be heard from 6 to 9 a.m. weekdays on WDAE-620.