ST. PETERSBURG — In theory, it could have been worse.
Two-thirds of the way through Friday's game, the Rays were looking at the embarrassment of being no-hit in their first appearance on the American League Championship Series stage.
By the end, just after midnight, they were just left with the frustration of a 2-0 defeat and the loss of the homefield advantage they battled so hard for over six months.
Boston's man of mystery starter Daisuke Matsuzaka was the primary reason, limiting the Rays to just four singles while working into the eighth.
But the Rays have to blame themselves, too, failing to take advantage of the few opportunities they had, unlike they did so often in compiling the best home record in the majors.
If it wasn't bad enough that they had the bases loaded in the first and didn't get anything, or that they had the first two men on in the seventh and came away with nothing, consider the eighth.
They had the first two on again and chased Matsuzaka, forcing the Sox to their oft-suspect bullpen. But the Rays lent a hand. Carlos Pena, swinging on a 3-and-0 pitch from reliever Hideki Okajima, flied out to shallow right. And Evan Longoria, mired in a miserable 1-for-16 skid since his smashing 3-for-3 postseason debut, grounded into a double play.
Game 2 in the best-of-seven series is tonight, with Boston's postseason ace, Josh Beckett, with a 6-2, 2.09 career mark, facing Rays lefty Scott Kazmir, who is hoping his second playoffs appearance starts better than his first.
The Rays didn't have a hit off Matsuzaka until Carl Crawford led off the seventh with a solid single to right. They quickly had a chance to even the score when Cliff Floyd followed with a drive to left-center, sending Crawford to third.
But Matsuzaka, who ended up throwing 115 pitches (three shy of his season high), got through the bottom of the order and got out with the shutout intact. Dioner Navarro flied to shallow left, Gabe Gross struck out (for the 18th time in 52 at-bats against the Sox) and Jason Bartlett grounded into a forceout.
Rays starter James Shields was nearly as good. The Sox threatened in the first, then finally broke through for a run in the fifth. They added another in the eighth, when Kevin Youkilis doubled off reliever J.P. Howell, and could have had more had Grant Balfour not worked out of a bases-loaded jam.
The fifth-inning rally, such as it was, started when Jason Bay, the outfielder the Rays wanted to acquire from Pittsburgh on July 31 but Boston did, drew a leadoff walk. Mark Kotsay took what amounted to a check swing at the first pitch and dumped it just inside the line in shallow leftfield, then hustled his way to second.
Jed Lowrie delivered a sac fly to right that scored Bay easily, and Kotsay moved up to third. With the infield in, Akinori Iwamura did a good job smothering Jason Varitek's grounder for the second out, and Bartlett ran down Jacoby Ellsbury's popup to keep the Sox to one.
The Sox caught a break in the first when, with one on and two out, Youkilis — who came in 0-for-17 against Shields — tucked a ball just inside the rightfield line. Then the Rays caught one when it short-hopped the side wall for a ground-rule double, sending Dustin Pedroia back to third. Behind 2-and-0 in the count, Shields battled back to strike out J.D. Drew.
Iwamura made a series of dazzling defensive plays, starting an inning-ending double play, smothering a grounder with a man on third in the fifth and racing back and leaping for Kotsay's blooper with two on in the seventh.
The Rays' first ALCS appearance began after days-long anticipation and with much excitement, and with a strike, as Shields first pitch sailed past Ellsbury at 8:39 p.m. A Tropicana Field sellout crowd of 35,001 — more pro-Rays than usual for a Boston game, but not all — cheered wildly throughout the game.
Marc Topkin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.