ST. PETERSBURG — As if the Rays weren't having troubles of their own trying to get to September with something still meaningful about their games, Boston's Clay Buchholz made them even more miserable Sunday.
Winless in his past seven starts, Buchholz nonetheless dominated from start to finish, allowing only three hits to beat the Rays 3-0 and leave them with their major-league-most-matching 16th shutout of the season.
"We ran into a really, really good pitching performance today," Rays manager Joe Maddon said. "Very untimely. … He'd have beat up a lot of folks today with that stuff. A really bad draw. I know he'd been hurt, he gets well and all of a sudden he's looking like he did a couple years ago. That's just unfortunate for us. He always pitches well against us, and now he pitches as good as he's ever pitched against us."
The kids wearing Rays T-shirts running the bases after the game provided much more excitement than the professionals did earlier. The Rays got only three men on against Buchholz — who needed only 98 pitches for his first shutout in more than a year — and one past first, as Matt Joyce doubled with two outs in the fourth and Evan Longoria promptly grounded out.
Maddon said if he knew Buchholz was going to be that sharp, he would have bunted after Kevin Kiermaier's first-innng leadoff single to play for one run.
"Of course that's not really what we planned or expected to go out and have that kind of performance today, so, yes, that's a little tough to swallow," Joyce said.
"He threw all of his pitches for strikes when he wanted to. … He just did everything you want to do as a pitcher. And when a pitcher does that, it's tough to hit. It makes it really tough to hit."
And, residually, tough to pitch, as Rays starter Alex Cobb — admittedly not at his sharpest — was done in by a few mistakes.
In the third, after allowing a single to Xander Bogaerts, Cobb made an errant pickoff throw that eluded backup first baseman Sean Rodriguez, marking the eighth straight game the Rays made an error. That allowed Bogaerts to move up to third, and Christian Vazquez promptly cashed in with an RBI single to right.
In the fifth, Cobb allowed a two-out, two-strike single to Brock Holt then, after a stolen base as his pitch skipped past Jose Molina, a 3-and-2 single to rookie Mookie Betts that made it 2-0.
"It was angering to give up some of the runs that I gave up," Cobb said. "Because one was a self-inflicted wound, giving up two bases on that error, and then a two-out hit — two two-out hits, that I can't let, I've got to bear down a little bit better there."
Maddon, though, absolved Cobb of any blame, especially as he pitched into the seventh without his usually put-away split-changeup and allowed only two runs.
"I can't nitpick at Cobber," he said. "If every one of our starters threw like that or had that kind of day, we'd be pretty darn good all year."
In losing two of the first three in the four-game series to the last-place Red Sox, the Rays get to September 66-71 and hanging barely on the fringe of the race for the second American League wild card, 8½ games — and six teams — back with only 25 to play.
Mathematically, as Maddon points out daily, it's possible. Realistically, not so much, as the Rays have to just about win out, as Colorado did in 2007, taking 14 of its last 15 to get to the playoffs then seven straight to reach the World Series.
"We've got to go Colorado Rockies on them right now," Maddon said. "We've got to channel our inner Rockies."
Contact Marc Topkin at [email protected]. Follow @TBTimes_Rays.