In retrospect, it was quite a one-two punch. A matchup that had been acutely one-sided for 10 years turned dramatically on two events a few months apart in 2008: First, the Rays fought the Red Sox as a June pitcher/hit batter confrontation escalated into an all-out emotional brawl. Then they beat them in October, prevailing in a tense seven-game American League Championship Series. And from then on, the teams have become not only fierce competitors but contemporaries, battling on much more even terms.
Their latest round will play out nationally over the next week as they meet for the second time on the postseason stage, opening a best-of-five American League Division Series this afternoon at Fenway Park.
"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. "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. So it will be a fun one to be a part of."
There has been plenty of entertainment already, going back, somewhat famously, to an August 2000 confrontation between Devil Rays outfielder Gerald Williams and Red Sox pitcher Pedro Martinez that carried over to the hallway between the clubhouses at Tropicana Field. (A game Martinez, working now as a TBS analyst, said Thursday still "stands out the most to me.")
It has been highlighted by that 2008 brawl starring Rays pitcher James Shields and Red Sox outfielder Coco Crisp. Featured the 2011 dramatics as the Red Sox collapsed while the Rays’ surge culminated with the epic Game 162 drama. And renewed more years than not since — with curiously aimed pitches, bench-clearing to-dos, threats, accusations, even in spring training.
"We've had some boring games, but not very many against the Red Sox," Rays veteran Ben Zobrist said.
Outfielder Jonny Gomes is perhaps the world's leading authority on the subject, having been a key part of that 2008 Rays squad that flipped the script — literally, he was right in the middle of the Shields-Crisp affair — and now a proud member of Red Sox Nation.
He looks back at the days when the Rays were the foils and said they collectively "got sick and tired of them taking our lunch money."
And he looks now at the Rays with admiration, noting "they're 90-plus wins every year. You take those guys lightly, you bully them, they're going to put a bunch of runs on you or they're going to fight."
Gomes said the evolution occurred on dual tracks, the Rays developing the necessary character and pride to fight back, and developing enough good players that they could do so. (And also, by the way, that as much admiration as he has for the Rays, "I'd love to kick their butts this go-round.'')
Rays manager Joe Maddon sees it similarly.
"You're not going to be pushed around anymore. It's the playground thing. At some point you just have to stand up for your turf and you just say, 'Enough.’ And I think that's actually what happened in 2008," Maddon said.
"And a lot better baseball players, too. That matters also.”
The rivalry is still one-sided, and not just because the Sox lead 162-116 in regular-season play. The Sox have such a long history and the Rays — especially the good Rays — are a recent phenomenon. And the Sox have the Yankees along with the Orioles and other longtime rivals, while the Rays pretty much have the Sox.
"It's a start," Gomes said.
Though a good one, according to Sox DH David Ortiz.
"They've been winning the division, the American League East title, so you can never count them out," Ortiz said.
"I know that our history with the Yankees goes beyond, way before, but now we have a new rivalry going on, which is the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, and you cannot forget about that." (Though you can, apparently, forget about the well-publicized 2008 team name change)
Being back in Boston for another postseason series makes the rivalry even more real for Maddon, who notes they learned in 2008 "you have to go through this particular area to get where you want to be.''
More so for Game 1 starter Matt Moore.
"This is a great place for us to win on the road. I haven't felt this good going on the field celebrating … shaking hands in the middle of the field here, it's nice.''
Marc Topkin can be reached at [email protected]pabay.com. Follow him on Twitter at @TBTimes_Rays.