ST. PETERSBURG — The Rays can look back on the series with the Red Sox and feel they measured up well with the American League's best, playing three consecutive tense and tight games that may well be, as manager Joe Maddon expects, a precursor of what's to come during a summer-long race.
Or they can look at the standings after Thursday's 4-2 loss and see they are only three games above .500 at 36-33 and 5½ games out of first place, their largest deficit since the end of the 2009 season.
"I think it indicates that we're right with these guys, absolutely," Maddon said. "Especially coming in like they did, how hot they had been. I think we've proven to ourselves and everybody else that we stand toe to toe with these guys anywhere."
The Rays were the ones calling this a big series, even a huge one, and adjusting their rotation for it. But as close as the competition was — a cumulative 7-6 advantage for Boston — their net result after losing two out of three was losing a game in the standings.
"They've got a very good team. That's why they're 5½ up on us and leading the division," Rays designated hitter Johnny Damon said. "But we've got a lot of baseball left — 90-some games — we definitely can go out and make a splash from here on out.
"It's not the end of the world right now, but we're definitely crushed about this game."
In part, because of how it happened, ace David Price putting them in a 3-0 hole two innings into a five-inning outing he called "pathetic," battling back to 3-2, giving up a ninth-inning homer to Adrian Gonzalez then rallying back with their first two on in the ninth but failing to convert.
And as usual when the Red Sox are in town, it was hard to tell whether that was a good thing or a bad thing for the 23,495 gathered under the tilted roof of Tropicana Field.
Price couldn't have been more excited going into the start and more disappointed after as he had no command of his fastball and not much better when he switched to his breaking stuff.
Price struggled through a 33-pitch first inning, allowed two runs in a sloppy second and lasted only five total, walking a season-high five, and throwing a whopping 106 pitches.
"I didn't command the zone in general with any pitch, so you're not going to get by, especially against a team like Boston," Price said. "It's disappointing. Go five innings, walk five guys, give up three runs. That's pretty pathetic."
Their offense was again part of the problem (with just a .155 average for the series), getting single runs in the second on a double by Sam Fuld and a homer by Casey Kotchman in the sixth. They made a bid in the ninth when Kotchman led off with a double off Jonathan Papelbon and B.J. Upton reached on an infield single.
But pinch-hitter Elliot Johnson lined out on what was supposed to be a bunt, and pinch-hitter Justin Ruggiano struck out looking and Sean Rodriguez struck out swinging.
The Rays — 12-24 against teams over .500, 24-9 against those below — have 13 more games with the Red Sox and are confident they can close the gap.
"They just were better this series," Damon said.
Marc Topkin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.