With the best winning percentage in baseball and the season now half over, the Rays entered this weeknight series with the Red Sox up by half a game in the division.
This is uncharted territory for the Rays as they seemingly have the pieces in place to stay in contention all year.
The big questions remaining are: will they make a splash at the trade deadline, does David Price get called up to the big leagues, and how does the young roster react to playing meaningful games for the first time?
The answers started to come tonight.
Here is what transpired on Monday night in Tampa.
Toeing the rubber:
TAM: James Shields (RHP, 5-5, 3.76), card-carrying ace
BOS: Justin Masterson (RHP, 4-1, 3.43), rookie sidearm sinkerballer, who struggles against left-handed hitters
Shields made it through the first without incident, getting three ground outs as the top of the Red Sox order was not waiting around.
I don’t know how I feel about not driving up an ace’s pitch count early in the game.
On the first pitch of the bottom of the first, BJ Upton hit a titanic shot off the hitter’s backdrop in center field.
Amazingly, in eight starts this year, this was the third time the opposition has hit a leadoff homer against Masterson.
The Rays got one more man on base in the inning, a hit batter, before the side was retired as Evan Longoria went down flailing.
Sandwiched around a Mike Lowell pop out, Manny Ramirez and Kevin Youkilis looked foolish and went down on strikes.
Shields was only at 20 pitches through two innings and his stuff looked filthy.
Masterson walked two in the second but was helped out by a 4-6-3 DP to keep the Rays off the scoreboard. Worse than already being at 33 pitches, he had only thrown one more strike than he had thown balls.
Jason Varitek, who is having one of the most miserable months a player has ever had at .127/.215/.183, was one of two strikeout victims in the third as it was an incredibly easy nine up, nine down for Shields.
Masterson retired Upton to start the bottom of the third on a ground out to Dustin Pedroia and then got Carl Crawford to fly out weakly.
After Willy Aybar smoked a two out single up the middle, Carlos Pena couldn’t extend the inning with a towering pop out to Lowell.
The hottest hitter on the planet, Pedroia, hit one into the hole and shortstop Jason Bartlett couldn’t field it cleanly for Boston’s first hit on the night.
After a J.D. Drew fly out to the warning track, Ramirez walked on four pitches before Lowell smoked an RBI single down the third base line.
Youkilis grounded out to end the inning, but not before the Red Sox tied the game 1-1 and pushed Shields’ pitch count to 57.
After two quick outs in the bottom of the fourth, Masterson walked Dioner Navarro and then gave up a two-run blast to .230-hitting Gabe Gross, a lefty.
Masterson’s terrible secondary stuff to lefties reared its ugly head once again as a change-up was left belt high over the middle of the plate.
This is why many project Masterson to ultimately end up in the bullpen, but for the time being why isn't he just pounding his sinker pitch-after-pitch, at least they aren't ending up in the bleachers.
Brandon Moss tried to get something going for the Red Sox with a single to right, however Varitek couldn’t make contact on a hit-and-run and Moss was thrown out at second.
Varitek’s struggles continued as he grounded out to first base and Julio Lugo ended the fifth inning with a fly out to Upton in center field.
Once again two quick outs to start an inning for Masterson, but another inexcusable two-out walk led to an RBI double by Pena. A weak ground out ended the inning, but the Rays extended their lead to 4-1.
At 86 pitches and some terrible pitching from Masterson, rookie Chris Smith began throwing in the Sox bullpen.
With two down in the sixth, Drew homered to deep right on the tenth pitch of his at-bat. Two pitches earlier he should have been called out on strikes but a slider in the bottom part of the zone was called a ball by the home plate umpire.
The home run was Drew’s 12th of the month to go along with 27 RBI. The Rays held a 4-2 lead heading to the bottom of the inning.
Terry Francona decided to bring Masterson back out, as the Sox bullpen warmed up, to start the inning.
He once again allowed a two-out walk, and then a single, but didn’t allow a run to score as Upton lined out to Ellsbury in center field.
Lowell opened the seventh with his second hit of the night. After a Youkilis line out, Joe Maddon pulled Shields who was at 104 pitches and brought in lefty Trever Miller to face Moss.
Moss walked to put runners on first and second for Varitek, who faced new pitcher Grant Balfour.
Varitek hit a pop up three feet in front of home plate for the second out of the inning, and Lugo quickly ended the rally with a weak ground out back to the mound.
Chris Smith came in for his third major league appearance and promptly walked the bases loaded while only getting one out on a sac bunt.
Javier Lopez was brought in to face pinch hitter Jonny Gomes and allowed a run to score on a fielder’s choice.
Navarro grounded into a force out to end the inning, but the Rays pushed across the insurance run they were looking for and held a 5-2 lead heading to the eighth.
Dan Wheeler retired Ellsbury, Pedroia and Drew all on fly outs leaving the Rays just three outs away from a one-and-a-half game division lead.
Gross added another hit to lead off the bottom of the eighth with Troy Percival looming in the Rays pen.
A squibbler by Bartlett found its way through Lopez’s legs on an error putting two men on for Upton who grounded into a 6-4-3 DP.
Crawford’s ground out to second ended the inning as Percival was summoned from the pen to close out a three-run lead.
To open the ninth, Ramirez struck out swinging on a 92 MPH fastball at the belt, a pitch we have seen him handle with ease in years past.
Lowell smashed a double off the left-center field wall followed by a single for Youkilis off of a diving Longoria’s glove.
As the tying run at the plate, Moss hit a fly ball to right field that hit a Tropicana Field catwalk and landed in play for the RBI double.
Varitek cut the lead to 5-4 with a sac fly, however Percival hurt his leg backing up third base.
Maddon removed a ticked-off Percival and brought in J.P. Howell to face Lugo with two outs and the tying run on third base.
On a full count pitch Lugo lined out to the shortstop to give the Rays a 5-4 victory and a one-and-a-half game lead over the Red Sox.
Shields: 6.1 IP, 5 H, 1 BB, 5 K, 2 ER
Masterson: 6 IP, 5 H, 5 BB, 5 K, 4 ER