BOSTON — Principal owner Stuart Sternberg and manager Joe Maddon have both spoken fondly this season about seeing the division standings on the Fenway Park leftfield wall with the Rays on top.
They'd better look again tonight, because the way things are going, they might not get another chance.
The Rays lost, again, 3-0 to the Red Sox on Monday. Their American League East lead, a robust 5½ games just nine days ago, is down to a half-game, and the Sox are poised to pass them tonight.
As if losing four straight and six of seven September games weren't bad enough, as well as their ninth straight at Fenway, the Rays (85-57) lost another key player to injury, centerfielder B.J. Upton leaving mid game with a left quad strain he said likely will keep him out until at least Friday.
And veteran DH Cliff Floyd, who called a pregame players-only meeting, suggested at least some of the Rays had lost their focus on winning the division and were more concerned with their comfortable lead in the wild-card race than holding off the Red Sox.
It would seem enough to frustrate even the most seasoned September team, much less first-timers like the Rays — "Of course it can, if you let it," Maddon said — but he insisted he didn't see it or sense it.
"I don't, I really don't," he said. "If you were out there making mistakes, running around like crazy. … We played well. We played really well and lost. Just talking to the guys, I'm very pleased with the way they're going about their business. It's going to turn."
The players also remain confident they will start winning again, just as they did after going into the All-Star break losing seven straight and the division lead.
"Obviously we'd like to have a bigger lead than we have," Upton said, "but that's the game. We've run into one stint like this earlier this year, and it was bound to happen again. The good thing is there's a lot of baseball left to be played, and we're in a good position right now. As long as we don't let it get out of hand, we'll be okay."
"Right now, we can't afford to get down and frustrated," said starter Edwin Jackson, who worked into the eighth. "We just have to understand that it's like that sometimes and the only thing you can do to change it is to keep going out there and busting it every day until it changes."
The balance is not trying to do too much. Monday that's exactly what it looked like as Jackson was too excited at the start and allowed three first-inning runs — leadoff walk, one-out double by David Ortiz, single by Kevin Youkilis, two-out homer by Jason Bay (the outfielder the Rays tried to get from Pittsburgh but Boston did) — then nothing else.
"First inning I was in a rush, maybe it was adrenaline,'' Jackson said. "After that, just trying to calm down and be normal."
The hitters, meanwhile, couldn't do much of anything against lefty Jon Lester (now 4-0 against them in seven starts) and were shut out for the second straight game, the first time that has happened since April 2004. The Rays started with a walk, too, then Upton bunted into a double play. Their best chance? Men on second and third with two outs in the eighth, and Sox closer Jonathan Papelbon struck out Rocco Baldelli, Baldelli's fourth of the night. The Rays left eight on and were 0-for-5 (for the second straight day) with runners in scoring position.
"We've had so many games where people have just come through in the right spot,'' Baldelli said. "We've had timely hitting all year, and this last week we just haven't.''
Marc Topkin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.