ST. PETERSBURG — The three-game series with the Red Sox that opens tonight at Tropicana Field is still crucial to the Rays' postseason hopes.
Just not the way they had hoped.
"The motivation's changed a little bit," Rays manager Joe Maddon acknowledged. "We want to get there, obviously. I was looking forward to this to be like the point where you battle to take that front-running spot. But of course we've kind of put ourselves in a bad position."
In other words, after losing 11 of their past 15 games, the Rays have to be more concerned staving off the four teams in close pursuit for the final American League playoff spot rather than running down the East-leading Red Sox.
"Two (or) three weeks ago the wild card seemed like just an assumption, that at worst we would be in the wild card," Rays outfielder Sam Fuld said. "But we've put ourselves in a position now where we need to win every game so we can get in the playoffs."
Consider that as recently as Aug. 25 the Rays woke up with a percentage points lead over the Red Sox, and this morning they are 7½ games behind with 20 to play.
So while math and history (remember 2011?) don't prohibit the possibility, the Rays are wise to take a more realistic view, especially since the Sox have been a sizzling 11-3 over that same span.
"Forgetting about all that stuff, I just want us to play good baseball," Maddon said. "If we get back to playing baseball the way we can every night, good things will happen. We'll get there some way. That's my only concern right now, is making sure we play well and right and continue to be more process-oriented, stay present tense, those kind of things."
"We just need to win," said ace David Price, who starts tonight. "It's September right now, and we control our own destiny. We just need to win baseball games. It doesn't matter who we're playing against. Just find a way to get into October."
For the next three nights the Sox are standing in their way, no doubt relishing the chance — despite their own issues such as Jacoby Ellsbury's fractured foot — to strip away the last vestige of intrigue from the division race and further wreck the Rays' chances.
There is, after all, a little history between the franchises, going back to an August 2000 confrontation between Devil Rays outfielder Gerald Williams and Red Sox pitcher Pedro Martinez that spilled into the hallway between the clubhouses, and the June 2008 brawl sparked by James Shields and Coco Crisp (and prominently featuring Jonny Gomes, who now plays for the Sox), and including some form of renewed festivities more seasons than not.
That past also includes a tussle earlier this year at the Trop, when Boston's John Lackey barked at the Rays dugout, then hit Matt Joyce, and Sox catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia got a little aggressive in his escort service, leading to the benches emptying and the typical testy soundtrack.
And even an exchange of snarky tweets between front-office folks when the Rays, with the benefit of a questionable call, beat the Sox on July 29 to take over first place.
From @RaysBaseball: "Dear @RedSox scoreboard operator — your standings are wrong. Yours truly, @RaysBaseball."
In reply from @RedSox: "Don't worry @raysbaseball we look forward to seeing you in Tampa in September for our home games at the Trop."
Alex Cobb, who starts Wednesday, said there is a reason the Rays see the Red Sox — who have won 10 of their 16 games this season — as their biggest rival.
"It feels like there's a little bit of bad blood there," he said. "It seems like there's a couple scuffles every time we get involved with them. That's obviously heated up the rivalry a little bit.
"And it's a real exciting thing to say the least."
Marc Topkin can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @TBTimes_Rays.
. fast facts
Not that long ago …
AL East standings morning of 8/25
Team W-L Pct. GB
RAYS 74-53 .583—
Red Sox 76-55 .580—
AL East standings morning of 9/10
Team W-L Pct. GB
Red Sox 87-58 .600—
RAYS 78-64 .549 7½