ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- It’s one of those quirky things that happens to teams every September.
The Tampa Bay Rays beat the Red Sox Thursday night to salvage the final game of their three-game set with a 4-3 win. And as soon as the game was over, they became Sox fans, rooting for Boston to do their dirty work for them against the New York Yankees this weekend at Fenway Park.
Tampa Bay’s prolonged free fall -- they were a major league worst 4-13 since Aug. 25 and had lost five straight before Thursday night’s win -- has left the Rays feeling some heat from the Yankees, who come into Boston just a game out of a wild-card spot after taking three of four from the Baltimore Orioles.
How do you kill off the Yankees -- on life support after three excruciating losses to the Red Sox last weekend in the Bronx -- the team no longer able to depend on a late-September lift from captain Derek Jeter, who is through playing hardball this season?
"You’re never going to kill them off," said catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia, who hit his 12th home run and threw out his third straight baserunner attempting to steal, each with a strong, accurate throw. “They’re such a veteran team. They’re going to battle. That’s a good coaching staff, and the guys that have filled in are good veteran guys that have been there before. They’ve got a lot of guys who can pull their clubhouse together.
"The Yankees were rooting for us this series, and now the Rays are. Weird, isn’t it?"
For Jonny Gomes, disposing of the Yankees once and for all is not on his to-do list, which he purposely keeps very short.
"We’re in a situation where we don’t look outside this clubhouse," Gomes said. “We don’t scoreboard-watch, we don’t worry about who’s pitching. We beat everyone already, you know. We’ve beat teams’ aces. We’ve scored a lot. We’ve won close games.
“That’s what happens in here. We’ve set ourselves up where if we play our game, we win [the division title]."
There’s no need, Gomes said, to admonish this bunch about paying attention to the task at hand.
"We’ve played our butts off all the way up to this point," he said. "We control our own destiny. I don’t think we need to tell anyone to focus on our game and not what [other teams] do. It’s pretty easy."
The Rays would have found themselves in a virtual tie for the second wild-card spot had they lost to the Red Sox, who had won seven of their past eight and put the go-ahead runs on base in the ninth on a one-out infield hit by Stephen Drew and a four-pitch walk to pinch hitter Mike Carp, whose 10th-inning grand slam the night before shocked the Rays.
Sox manager John Farrell then called upon Will Middlebrooks, who was pinch hitting for the first time all season. The young third baseman, who had been given the night off so that Xander Bogaerts could get a start, started thinking by the sixth inning he might hit.
"I was ready," he said. "I didn’t hear anything until the eighth. I saw [Fernando] Rodney warming up, and I told a couple of guys I want him if the situation comes up. Unfortunately, I couldn’t get the run in."
Middlebrooks crushed a pitch from Rodney but lined it right into the glove of third baseman Evan Longoria for the second out of the inning. "Tough one to swallow," he said. Rodney then got to go into his flaming-arrow act when he retired Dustin Pedroia on a pop fly to end it.
Middlebrooks, too, did not have the Bronx on the brain.
"We’re not worried about anybody but ourselves, man," he said. “If we lose, we beat ourselves. We’re a good team. We’re not worried about the Yankees. We’re not looking at the standings. Just come to play baseball, and win every day."
The Rays broke a 3-3 tie in the eighth against Rubby De La Rosa when Longoria doubled and scored on a two-out, fly-ball double by Wil Myers that fell just inside the right-field foul line. Farrell had committed to giving a breather to his usual suspects in the pen and turned to Drake Britton and De La Rosa as setup men, with Franklin Morales held in reserve to close. Britton pitched a scoreless seventh and got the first out in the eighth.
De La Rosa gave up a ground-rule double to Longoria on an 0-2 slider -- Saltalamacchia was chiding himself afterward, saying he shouldn’t have asked De La Rosa to try to duplicate the excellent slider he’d thrown on the previous pitch, at least not right away -- and Myers’ fly ball kicked up chalk.
"When you get to this point," Rays manager Joe Maddon said, “there are always these little moments that occur, and it is about inches, whether it goes your way or not. Finally, we got a break tonight."
The Rays had taken a 3-1 lead against Sox starter Jake Peavy in the first four innings. Longoria tripled in the second and scored on a single by Myers. David DeJesus walked -- one of five issued by Peavy in six innings -- and scored on James Loney’s two-out double. And Desmond Jennings hit a two-out home run in the fourth.
The Sox, whose first run came on the home run by Saltalamacchia -- who broke an 0-for-21 slump -- tied the score in the sixth when David Ortiz hit his 27th homer to open the inning. Saltalamacchia walked, stole second, then scored on Drew’s double.
But there would be no adding to their total of 22 last-at-bat wins. Not on this night. Instead, they make a trip home for nine games against the Yankees, Orioles and Blue Jays and a chance to clinch the division on their own terms, on their own turf. The magic number remains at eight. The Bombers become the first order of business.
“I don’t know that we wrote them off," Farrell said of the Yankees. “[Alfonso] Soriano has come to that team. [Alex] Rodriguez has come back. Their offense is a strong one. We saw them for four games. No lead was seemingly safe. They’ve done an awesome job to be in the position they’re in given the number of games missed by their regular players.
“You respect the way they go about their work. Their pitching has been constant, and they’ve scored a lot of runs of late. And this weekend is going to be, as we’ve looked at every series over the course of the season, challenging in and of itself.
“I think there will be excitement around the three games we play. Every time we play them is a spectacle, and we’re going to see Mariano [Rivera] for the last time, hopefully. Looking forward to a really good series.’’