ST. PETERSBURG -- The Rays manipulated their starting rotation in anticipation of the Red Sox's arrival for a three-game series at Tropicana Field.
That personified the high regard in which the Rays hold Boston and the importance of beating their American League East rival.
Unfortunately for the Rays, once Sean Rodriguez swung and missed at strike three to complete Thursday night's 4-2 Red Sox victory, Tampa Bay had to look at the standings in the AL East that showed it was a game further behind Boston than when it arrived.
In defeat, the Rays moved to 36-33 on the season, while the Red Sox finished their AL East road trip at 8-1 and moved to 41-27.
Although the Rays lost the three-game set, manager Joe Maddon looked to the positives.
"It was a really evenly matched three nights," Maddon said. "They scored seven runs and we scored six. We just didn't get them. We just have to figure out how to get another run here every now and then.
"I think [this series] indicates that we're right in there with these guys. Coming in the way they did and how hot they have been, and everything that was going on. I think that we've proven to ourselves and everybody else that we stand toe-to-toe with these guys anywhere."
After brilliant pitching performances by James Shields and Josh Beckett in the first two games of the series, Thursday night's matchup looked like another doozy with Clay Buchholz taking the bump for Boston and David Price doing so for Tampa Bay.
But Price fell short of the excellence he normally exudes. Tampa Bay's stylish left-hander allowed a run in the first and managed to escape a bases-loaded jam without further damage, but he needed 33 pitches to do so. He allowed two more runs in his five-inning outing, which included a season-high five walks. Prior to Thursday night's start, the most he allowed in a game was two free passes.
"I walked five, so that's tough," Price said. "I didn't command the zone at all with any pitch. You're not going to get by [like that], especially against a team like Boston."
Price said he could not throw his fastball for strikes, so he went with more offspeed stuff than normal.
"He's not going to be perfect every time out there," Maddon said. "He just did not seem to have his best stuff tonight, and that happens on occasion, but he gave us a chance to win that game."
Buchholz allowed just one run on two hits in five innings before having to leave the game with lower back tightness.
"It is a nagging back that has been the same from last year," Buchholz said. "I was in a better position tonight to come out a little early and not put any more stress on my body than I had to."
Buchholz's departure prompted a call to the bullpen for Alfredo Aceves, who got the first two outs in the sixth on well-struck balls by Matt Joyce and Evan Longoria. But the third hitter he faced, Casey Kotchman, reached the seats in right with his third home run of the season to cut the lead to 3-2.
Tampa Bay's combined bullpen effort of Juan Cruz, J.P. Howell and Joel Peralta added three scoreless innings. But Adrian Gonzalez struck with two outs in the ninth, blistering a 3-1 offering from closer Kyle Farnsworth for his 14th home run of the season and a 4-2 Red Sox lead.
Tampa Bay tried to mount a comeback in the ninth. Kotchman doubled off Jonathan Papelbon to lead off the inning and B.J. Upton followed with an infield single. But pinch-hitter Elliot Johnson popped up a sacrifice bunt before Papelbon struck out pinch-hitter Justin Ruggiano and Rodriguez to end the game.
The first four hitters in Tampa Bay's lineup went a combined 2-for-41 in the series, which contributed greatly to the flat look of the offense.
"When you play good teams, that's how games are going to be," Longoria said. "They are all going to be close. They are all going to be nail-biters. It's a playoff atmosphere.
"It doesn't help when you have the top part of your order, including myself, [struggling]. We didn't come through from our top four guys. That's not going to cut it against anyone."
Tampa Bay is now 15-18 at Tropicana Field, a building where it once held a great home-field advantage. Meanwhile, the Rays are 21-15 on the road, a situation that has Maddon perplexed.
"We have not performed well offensively in this ballpark," Maddon said. "We just have to do better. On the road we do a nice job. We score runs, we hit the ball all over the place. We get here and we just have a much more difficult time. I have no explanation whatsoever for that. It's just the way things have been going for us.
"We have to take charge of this building again. We've got to start winning on a more consistent basis here for us to get back where we want to be at the end of the season. It's been somewhat frustrating, but I don't know why, because we've been doing so well outside of this place. It's not our normal way of doing business."
Bill Chastain is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.