BOSTON -- The Fenway Park air was crisp and autumn-like, even if it was technically still summer. The crowd -- the Major League record-setting 456th consecutive sellout -- was electric and playoff-like, even if it was still the regular season.

In many ways, Monday night felt like the start of the home stretch for the 2008 Red Sox, who stifled the Rays, 3-0, to narrow the deficit in the American League East to a mere half-game with two games left in this pivotal series for both teams.

Jon Lester was most responsible for the win, firing 7 2/3 dazzling innings, putting another notch in his breakout season. Jonathan Papelbon nailed it down by recording the final four outs for his 36th save.

"It's important," Lester said. "I think it was a little more important than a normal start, because, obviously, they're ahead of us now, and we're trying to get back into first place. It was a good atmosphere tonight in the ballpark. It almost felt like we were in the playoffs."

With a victory on Tuesday night, the Red Sox can move back into first place for the first time since July 17.

The Rays have held the top spot in the AL East since then, but the 85-58 Red Sox have been charging hard over the past couple of weeks.

While Tampa Bay has started September by losing six out of seven, the Boston, in what is easily their best stretch of the season, has reeled off 15 wins in its past 19 games.

"We're playing good baseball right now," said Lester. "We're swinging the bats and playing good defense. We're getting guys back at key times. Hopefully we'll keep going forward and keep this good thing going."

The home team has won all 13 games between the Red Sox and Rays this season.

In notching his 14th victory, Lester allowed four hits while walking three and striking out nine. The lefty was unscored on for the seventh time this season.

"Jon Lester has been a horse for us all year," said third baseman Mike Lowell. "He gave us a big start again. When you don't score a lot of runs, you've got to pitch well. That's exactly what we did."

The Rays couldn't help but pay their respects to the left-hander with the nasty stuff.

"His velocity is way up from where it had been in the past," said Rays manager Joe Maddon. "He's locating a lot better. He's got a really good cutter -- very good cutter."

All in all, the Red Sox couldn't have scripted a better start to this pivotal series. Mark Kotsay led off the bottom of the first with a walk and David Ortiz brought him home with a double off the Green Monster.

Kevin Youkilis followed with an RBI single up the middle, and was thrown out trying to reach second on the throw to the plate.

But Jason Bay took away the sting of that out, clubbing a towering solo shot over the Monster in left-center to make it 3-0. For Bay, it was his sixth homer since joining the Red Sox.

"Once again, home runs happen when you least expect them and that was the last thing on my mind," said Bay. "I was just trying to get a good swing on the ball. It was nice to get that one early."

That three-run spot turned out to mean everything. After that, Rays right-hander Edwin Jackson -- who went seven-plus innings with six strikeouts -- was filthy.

Then again, so was Lester, who has been lighting up the radar gun at a time of the season when other pitchers are beginning to show fatigue.

"He looks like he's built to give you a lot of innings," manager Terry Francona said. "His delivery is solid. He's a big, strong kid. He seems to be getting stronger. The ball's coming out of his hand better now than it has at any time all year."

With Lester at 106 pitches after seven innings, it was fair to wonder if he was done for the night. But in a show of faith, Francona sent him back out for the eighth.

Lester swiftly retired the first two betters before surrendering a single to Ben Zobrist and a ground-rule double by Carlos Pena.

Francona came out to get Lester, who was greeted with a thunderous standing ovation as he walked off the mound.

In came Papelbon, who blew a 97-mph fastball by Rocco Baldelli to end the eighth.

"Obviously, when you bring in Pap, it's a good situation," said Lester. "I had two batters before that to try to get out of it and didn't do it, and you have the best closer in baseball. Bring him in -- it makes it a little easier."

With 19 games left, the Red Sox are making their push.

"It's been a good couple of weeks," said Lester. "We've been swinging the bat well, playing good defense, had some good pitching. It sounds easy enough and obvious, but we're just playing consistent baseball right now. We're not letting up and we keep pushing the throttle and going forward."