BOSTON — As the first-place Rays found themselves smack in the center of the baseball world Tuesday night at Fenway Park, manager Joe Maddon's attitude reflected his team's bring-on-all-comers mentality.
"To be the best, you have to beat the best."
Though Maddon loved the "fight" the Rays showed, clawing back from two deficits, a familiar Fenway theme rang true: To defeat the defending world champs on their turf, it's Tampa Bay's typically stingy starting pitching that needs to shine through.
The Red Sox's deep lineup — sans slugger David Ortiz — knocked Matt Garza out with a four-run sixth in handing the Rays a 7-4 loss in front of 37,823. It was their fourth loss at Fenway this year. In three, the starters didn't last more than four innings.
Tuesday, in the opener of arguably the most anticipated series in Rays history, Tampa Bay (35-23) held two leads, but neither lasted more than an inning.
"We have to pitch really well, and we just didn't pitch good enough," Maddon said. "We kept catching leads and then giving them back up. You have to beat them by not putting them right back up."
Unlike the previous three Fenway losses, when the Red Sox thumped the Rays by a combined score of 26-10, this one resembled more of a heavyweight fight with two of the American League's top teams one-upping each other with timely hits.
The Red Sox, however, had the bigger ones.
Garza (4-2), coming off his most impressive outing as a Ray, struggled with each of his pitches but managed to squeeze through the first five innings giving up just three runs. With Ortiz out with a left wrist injury, it was the supporting cast that stole the show.
Mike Lowell hit a two-run homer in the second, and J.D. Drew smacked a solo shot in the fourth that once again gave the Red Sox a one-run lead.
Interestingly, it was Carlos Pena who came through for the Rays. Pena, 2-for-23 with 13 strikeouts in his previous six games, delivered arguably two of the biggest hits.
Pena's ground-rule double in the fourth scored B.J. Upton from second base to tie the score. And in the sixth, he blasted a two-run homer to rightfield off top prospect Justin Masterson to put the Rays up 4-3.
The lead was short-lived as Garza's control got him into a bases-loaded jam in the bottom half. The hard-throwing right-hander hit Kevin Youkilis with a pitch, and after a rare error by shortstop Jason Bartlett, Garza walked Drew to load the bases.
Jason Varitek's single drove in one, and Coco Crisp's two-run double off the Green Monster ended Garza's night. He gave up six hits, walked two and hit two batters.
The Rays got the tying run to the plate in the eighth. But Carl Crawford, who arrived just before game time after an MRI exam on his sore right knee in Alabama (it was clear), grounded into a fielder's choice for the first of three straight outs.
"They're just all quality," Maddon said of Boston's hitters. "You've got to pitch your butt off to beat them, and we just didn't do that."