ST. PETERSBURG -- Game on!
Desperately needing to sweep the Red Sox to have any chance at reaching the postseason, the Rays did exactly what the doctor ordered, coming away with a 9-1 win Sunday afternoon at Tropicana Field to complete the weekend broom treatment.
The Rays (81-64) entered the weekend 6 1/2 games behind the American League Wild-Card leading Red Sox (85-61), and after three days of work, Tampa Bay narrowed the margin to a far more manageable 3 1/2-game deficit with 17 games remaining on its slate.
"We did need to win these," manager Joe Maddon said. "There was no other way to look at it. Two out of three -- meatloafing right now -- didn't taste nearly as good. ... Under the circumstances, you have to do what you did. Otherwise it's pretty much impossible to recover from that moment."
Tampa Bay has now won four in a row and seven of its last eight while Boston extended its losing streak to five and has lost seven of its last eight. When the Red Sox departed Fenway Park to begin their seven-game road trip to Toronto and St. Petersburg, they held an eight-game lead over the Rays.
"No, at this point you panic," said Red Sox slugger David Ortiz when asked about being the kind of team that doesn't panic. "You've got to panic at this point. But you're not going to do anything panicking but playing better. Of course you're freaked out. You go on this road trip 1-6, it's not good. We've got these guys breathing down our necks and we're not in first place either. We've got to come back and play better, though."
Ortiz added that the Rays have a good look about them right now.
"Well, you know, to be honest with you, the past three days, they look like they have no pressure on themselves," Ortiz said. "That makes a huge difference."
Holding a 4-1 lead in the bottom of the fifth, the Rays put the game away when they loaded the bases with two outs. B.J. Upton sent Matt Albers' third pitch -- a fastball that split the plate -- soaring over the left-center-field fence for his 20th home run of the season and his first career grand slam.
Upton and Rays fans have had an up-and-down relationship. On Sunday, the fans showed Upton some love after James Shields encouraged him to make a curtain call in front of the crowd of 25,220.
"[It] felt pretty good," said Upton, who went 4-for-4 on the afternoon. "I never experienced anything like that, especially in this type of series. ... I went out and it was pretty cool."
Sunday's matchup had "pitching duel" written all over it with 14-game winners Jon Lester and Shields starting for the Red Sox and Rays, respectively.
Instead, the game quickly acquired a distinctly different flavor.
Ben Zobrist singled off Lester with the bases loaded in the first to drive home Desmond Jennings and Upton. Sean Rodriguez added a sacrifice fly for a 3-0 Rays lead.
Lester needed 43 pitches and almost 30 minutes to get through the first inning against a Rays lineup that included three players who started the season in the Minor Leagues. He left after four innings, continuing a disturbing trend for the Red Sox, who have seen their starters go five innings or less in five straight games and in nine of their last 11.
Marco Scutaro homered off Shields to start the third, and the Red Sox went on to load the bases with one out. But Shields avoided further damage by retiring Ortiz on a shallow fly to left before getting Josh Reddick to pop out to third for the final out of the inning.
"In the beginning, [Shields was] over-boogying a little bit," Maddon said. "He was trying to do too much. He was falling off the mound. He didn't have his good alignment to the plate."
Jim Hickey went to the clubhouse to watch some video on Shields, and the Rays' pitching coach returned to the dugout to make some suggestions that helped Shields get back on track.
Shields smoothed out his delivery and came within two outs of recording his 12th complete game, as he allowed one run on seven hits and notched five strikeouts to notch his career-high 15th victory.
Maddon received a chorale of boos when he went to get Shields in the ninth. Shields then received a standing ovation as he walked toward the dugout.
"Joe gave me a hard time. He was like, 'Thanks for getting me booed out there,'" Shields said. "But I told him, 'It's a good thing, man. The fans want me to go out there. That's great.' But I think that was the right decision for him to pull me in that situation. I had a lot of pitches right there."
The Rays now lead their season series with the Red Sox by a margin of 9-5. They will meet in one final showdown in Boston after Tampa Bay plays three in Baltimore.
"We've got them four more times next week," Maddon said. "In the meantime, just play with the same level of intensity and verve and want-to and all the stuff we're doing right now. ... The guys are really getting after it."
And, cutting to the chase, can the Rays make a successful run to fight their way into the 2011 playoffs?
"It's tangible, it's possible, it's there, it's truly not impossible," Maddon said. "Maybe the skeptics are falling off the skeptical wagon into the possible wagon right now. And maybe the storyline is going to change a bit. But none of that matters. What matters is what this group thinks every day when they go out there and how we go about our business and attack the other side."
Bill Chastain is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.