ST. PETERSBURG — Mutual admiration ran deep before Friday’s first of 19 overall meetings, and the opening of back-to-back weekend series, between the Rays and the Red Sox.
Boston manager Alex Cora was effusive in his praise for how the Rays raced off to the best record in the majors.
“They have a great team,’’ he said. “Everyone knows it in the big leagues. It’s not that nobody knows what’s going on here.”
And the Rays, in turn, were charitable about the defending champs’ rough start and complimentary about Boston’s potential to turn things around.
“We knew they have a really good team,’’ centerfielder Kevin Kiermaier said. “I know they haven’t gotten out of the gate quite like they wanted to, but the talent that’s over in that clubhouse, there’s no denying that.
“They’re going to come out and click here pretty soon. We’re going to do our best to make sure it’s not (this) weekend.’’
And after the Red Sox rallied for a 6-4 win in the series opener, the Rays’ challenge now is to make sure it’s not the start of something.
“We’re not freaking out or anything like that,’’ said reliever Ryan Yarbrough, who let an early lead get away. “We kind of know where we’re at. We have Charlie (Morton) going (Saturday), and we have a lot of confidence in him. Our offense has been great so far this year. We’re not really too concerned. It’s just more about executing pitches and see what happens.’’
The loss was just the Rays’ sixth of the season, against 14 wins, and marked the first time in three-plus weeks of play they had dropped consecutive games. Cash said the focus just shifts to winning Saturday and having a chance to extend their season-starting series winning streak to seven.
“We’ve done a good job finding ways to win series,’’ he said. “We still want to put ourselves in position, and the only way we can do that is come out and play good and win (Saturday.)’’
Cora is eyeing a similar prize: “We’ve got two shots at winning the series. This is the first time I can say that all season. It’s good to feel that way.”
With Tropicana Field loud and vibrant with a mixed allegiance crowd of 21,343, the Rays, as has been their recent MO, got off to a good start.
Brandon Lowe homered, his sixth in 20 team games, to give them a 1-0 lead in the second, and Avisail Garcia stayed hot by tripling in Yandy Diaz with two outs in the third to make it 2-0.
With scheduled starter Blake Snell sidelined with a broken toe from an unfortunate bathroom incident, Rays pitchers showed well early on, opener Ryne Stanek and Yarbrough holding the Sox hitless into the fifth.
But Yarbrough issued the dreaded leadoff walk to J.D. Martinez, and the Sox turned it into a three-run inning, getting a one-out RBI double by Rafael Devers and a two-run homer by Christian Vazquez.
“Obviously leadoff walks never tend to end well,’’ Yarbrough said. “Left some pitches on the plate they took some good swings at, and it kind of got away from me a little bit.’’
Wilmer Font got the sixth inning off to a bad start as well, increasing the deficit to 4-2.
The Rays came back to tie, briefly anyway, on a big two-run double by Daniel Robertson, who had been 0-for-his-last-21 and showing it.
“It felt good,’’ he said. “It felt good to do something productive for the team. I guess when you go through those stretches, you try to tell yourself to have little victories, see the ball, hit it hard. I was just lucky to get it down the line there. Obviously it was a big time in the game, but that being said, we lost the game.”
Then the Sox struck the Rays where it hurt. Mookie Betts and Mitch Moreland hit back-to-back homers, their first such combo of the season, off Diego Castillo, who had been one of the Rays’ most-reliable but also most-used relievers.
“There are some things I don’t have control over.’’ Castillo said, via translator Manny Navarro. “It is what it is. I wasn’t trying to do that, it’s just part of it.”
Cash suggested workload could’ve been an issue.
Castillo wasn’t having it.
“I feel good,’’ he said. “It’s just sometimes it’s not going to go your way.”
Moreland said the Red Sox see it as more than that.
“We know what we’re capable of,’’ he said. “We’ve got a great team. We’ve just got to keep rolling like that. We’ve got to keep it going. They’re a good team over there, and they’ve obviously gotten off to a good start. For us to battle back and put up some crooked numbers late and take the game like that is a good first one.”
Contact Marc Topkin at [email protected]. Follow @TBTimes_Rays.