BOSTON — There was a time, before the glory days of last fall, when the Rays never left Fenway Park happy.
From May 2000 until September 2008, they were Boston's Most Welcome Visitors to America's Most Beloved Ballpark, playing 25 series and not winning any. They went a full year without even a single game victory, losing nine straight, including their first seven of '08.
And then there was September, and Dan Johnson's homer, and the 14th inning drama the next night, and suddenly the world had changed. The Rays won that series. They came back in October and took two out of three ALCS games.
Thursday afternoon, they made it three straight, capping the season-opening series with a 4-3 Matt Garza-fueled, Matt Joyce-Evan Longoria-Shawn Riggans-powered, and nearly Troy Percival-enflamed, victory.
"This is huge to come out of here with two out of three," veteran Carl Crawford said. "We were hoping to just get one maybe and not get swept like we did (twice) last year because it was so hard to win here. It's just a good confidence booster for us.
"They still played us tough, and they still have got a good team. I don't know if it's going to be that easy the next time we come in, but it definitely feels like we have a team that can come in here and compete any time and get wins like we did the last two games. … We didn't really feel uncomfortable like we did in the past. We're just going out and playing our game, and that's it."
On Thursday, that meant a strong outing from Garza, who, continuing his ALCS MVP domination of the Sox, allowed only one run and four hits over seven innings and 105 pitches, improving to 6-1, 2.93 overall against them.
"I'm sure he gets amped up a little bit — like he's isn't always amped up — amped up more," manager Joe Maddon said. "If you talk to him, I just think he sees the challenge."
Garza certainly pitched like it, throwing his fastball with confidence, mixing his breaking balls and working well again with backup catcher Shawn Riggans, whose extremely low target forces Garza to keep the ball down. "Lights out," Riggans said. "That's all I really have to say about it. It was a pleasure to catch."
Garza said it was more important for the Rays to get off to a good start, regardless of the team they were playing, to "let people know it wasn't a fluke, and we're here to battle, and we're here to stick around for a while."
But winning in Fenway made it more so: "We know we can do it now, and we're showing we can do it now."
He had help, of course, as Longoria, who is supposed to hit a lot of home runs, and Riggans, who isn't, and Joyce, who wasn't even supposed to be on the team, combined to make Boston starter Daisuke Matsuzaka look very ordinary.
Garza's 4-1 lead was whittled when Joe Nelson gave up a run in the eighth (but came back to get a huge strikeout of Jed Lowrie with two on), and Percival opened the ninth with a homer by Jason Varitek, then, after Longoria made a dazzling play, put the tying run on with two outs before closing it out.
That allowed the Rays to file out of Fenway clubhouse smiling.
"I guess," Riggans said, "to start in Boston overall wasn't that bad."
At Fenway, two out of three ain't bad.