BOSTON -- The September swoon that has engulfed the Red Sox worsened Thursday night, when the Rays not only arrived at Fenway for the opening of a pivotal four-game series, but stomped on the team they are closing in on in the American League's Wild Card standings.
After enduring a 9-2 defeat to Tampa Bay, Boston had its lead trimmed to just three games in the Wild Card race with 13 games left in the regular season.
In first place as recently as Sept. 1, Boston fell to 4 1/2 games in back of the Yankees in the AL East. When the month opened, the Sox led the division by a half-game, and the Rays by what seemed a very safe nine-game cushion.
But the last two weeks have been an exercise in sheer frustration for the Red Sox, as evidenced by a 3-11 mark, not to mention seven losses in the last eight games and nine in the last 11.
The September slump is something that is consuming a baseball-crazed city, not to mention the players who represent it.
"You have to," said Red Sox designated hitter David Ortiz. "There's no way you can get that out of your head. In my case, I just try to turn the page and come back the next day and try to kick some [butt], you know? What else can you do after you lose a game like you lose tonight? All you can do is come back the next day and try to do something different."
While the recent stretch isn't indicative of a season that has been largely successful for the Red Sox, the woes against the Rays have been an ongoing thing.
Boston has been outscored 42-15 and lost six in a row to Tampa Bay to fall to 5-10 in the season series.
Performances like the one Jeremy Hellickson turned in (5 2/3 innings, three hits, one run) have been commonplace by Tampa Bay starters against Boston in 2011.
"I always tell you guys that good pitching will shut down any kind of offense," said Ortiz, who went 2-for-2 with a walk after missing the previous two games with back spasms. "Those guys' pitching, there's no fear. You know what I'm saying? When you go down to the scouting report, I'm pretty sure those guys change everybody's scouting report.
"You don't watch them being stable with one thing. They go to everything any time, any situation, and the most impressive thing about [it] is [that] they know how to spot their pitches."
Granted, the Sox would have preferred to open this big series with someone other than a September call-up taking the mound, but injuries to other rotation members put Kyle Weiland in that spot.
Making his fourth Major League start, Weiland (0-2, 7.58 ERA) held the Rays off the board over the first two innings, but a two-out broken-bat hit by B.J. Upton started a downward spiral in the third. Upton's bat went through Marco Scutaro's legs, diverting the shortstop's attention from the ball, which also went by him for what was ruled an RBI single.
"The bat beat the ball there," said manager Terry Francona. "That's about as unfortunate as you can be. He made a pitch to get out of the inning and the bat's flying and it beat the ball. It makes it difficult to impossible."
Befitting the way things have been going of late for the Sox, the fluky play came back to haunt them when the next batter, third baseman Evan Longoria, ripped a three-run homer over the wall in right-center.
"You're always looking for signs," said Rays manager Joe Maddon. "Looking for signs, man, from that baseball heaven, the baseball gods, they've got to throw you a sign once in a while. They've got to give you something to further believe."
The Red Sox will try to give their fans reason to believe again Friday as Josh Beckett makes his first start since Sept. 5, when he sprained his right ankle in Toronto. The team's other ace, lefty Jon Lester, will take the ball Saturday.
"It'll be nice to see him out there healthy," said Francona of Beckett. "We wouldn't pitch him if he wasn't, but it will be nice to see him out there attacking the strike zone and being the Josh we've come to rely on, because they like their guy, too. But that will give us a big lift for sure."
Without question, health has played a role in the team's recent demise. Not only has Beckett been out for this stretch, but so has Erik Bedard, who has a strained left lat muscle. Clay Buchholz hasn't pitched since June 16, but he is trying to work his way back from a stress fracture in his back. Kevin Youkilis is playing through a painful sports hernia that will require surgery at the end of the season.
But the Red Sox know that the best way to feel healthy is to win some games, something that has hardly happened at all of late.
"You've just got to deal with it," said Ortiz. "You don't see [anybody] trying to shut it down. We know we've got to win some games. That's why you see myself and some others trying to play even through injuries. We know we're running out of time."
Weiland went three-plus innings, giving up three hits and four runs. He walked two and struck out one.
"Yeah, it's just a little bit of bad luck and one mistake," Weiland said. "That's pretty much all it was. You can't do much about the broken bat. That's just what it is. It happens. It's not very often that [the ball and bat] are that close together. It was just one mistake -- 1-2 pitch that got too much of the plate. I wish I had that one back, but that's what it is. That's the mistake. It cost us."
After Weiland left, the Sox tried to piece it together with their bullpen.
Trever Miller and Scott Atchison both worked clean innings, but Franklin Morales was not so fortunate in the sixth, as Casey Kotchman tagged him for a one-out two-run homer to right.
So what does Big Papi tell the panicked masses who make up Red Sox Nation?
"Just hang in there and let's see what happens in the next 13 games we have left," Ortiz said.