Boston and Tampa Bay open a four-game set at Tropicana Field on Monday night, the first of 12 consecutive games the Red Sox play against either the Rays or Orioles.
If the on-field implications aren't enough -- Tampa's third in the American League East behind the O's and first-place Yankees -- some comments Sox manager Bobby Valentine made last month add subtext.
Asked on the radio whether he was late to a game in Oakland, Valentine singled out Rays manager Joe Maddon as an example of a skipper who routinely shows up at the ballpark late in the afternoon.
"Joe Maddon gets there every day at 4 o'clock, just for the record," Valentine said.
Later that day, Maddon had his retort, both to reporters and this version, on Twitter: "Apologies to the writers for being late to today's pregame session," Maddon wrote. "My pedicure appointment ran a little late."
But Maddon didn't offer any further sound bites on Sunday. The Rays dropped their rubber match with the Yankees, 6-4, but even before the game, Maddon was keeping the focus on the field.
"I don't listen to that kind of stuff," Maddon said when asked about Valentine. "I respect everybody that we play. In this game, we all know anything can happen on any given night. We've just got to play our game and not worry about the Red Sox."
It was the Rays who were the benefactors of Boston's final-month collapse last year, clinching the AL Wild Card on the final day of the regular season. The Orioles helped punch that ticket.
Tampa Bay's starter for Monday, Alex Cobb, grew up in Boston a Red Sox fan. He debuted in the Majors last season, but the right-hander wasn't around in September, making this his first pennant run.
"It's still the first time for me," the 24-year-old said, "so each game is more and more exciting."
Cobb (9-8, 4.26 ERA) has faced the Sox once before, back in his second start of the season on May 25 at Fenway Park. He let up one earned run and took the win in five innings of a 7-4 victory.
Overall, he's been a better pitcher at home, with a 3.34 ERA at the Trop compared to 5.19 elsewhere.
"Each and every series you go into, you try to put a benchmark on and put a good outing forth and set the bar high for the next game," Cobb said. "It's even more so now, and playing against Boston should be a fun environment."
The Red Sox's only September win streak was short-lived, cut down by a 5-0 loss to the Blue Jays on Sunday. Before the game, Valentine clarified another comment that got him in hot water, about the construction of his September roster.
"The other day when I made a comment about a September roster, that wasn't meant to be a criticism of any players or anything in the organization," Valentine said. "It was just a statement of fact because of the injuries and our Triple-A team in the playoffs. This is different. We have less people than most September rosters. We have less positions filled than any September roster I've ever seen. If you thought that to be anything other than a statement of what it was, stand corrected on that."
Aaron Cook (3-10, 5.18 ERA) gets the start for the Sox with losses in five straight decisions.
Red Sox: Valentine says last-place aversion isn't goal
The Red Sox could well finish at the bottom of the AL East, where they're neck and neck with the Blue Jays. Boston manager Bobby Valentine on Sunday played down the notion that his club is playing to avoid anything.
"I don't know how you talk about the team's mentality, but I think they're playing really good baseball," Valentine said. "I'm sure they want to have as good a record as possible before the year is over. I don't know if it's to avoid something; it's to move ahead and play well."
Boston is 16-for-16 in stolen base attempts since Aug. 29 and leads the Majors with an 88.1 percent success rate since the All-Star break (52-for-59).
Rays: Fuld leaves with mild right hamstring strain
Tampa Bay right fielder Sam Fuld left Sunday's 6-4 loss to the Yankees because of a mild right hamstring strain he suffered running to first base in the fifth inning.
Fuld was 0-for-2 on the day. Ben Francisco replaced him in the No. 8 spot in the lineup.
The Red Sox's 5-0 loss to the Blue Jays on Sunday guaranteed them their first non-winning season since 1997 (78-84, .481). The only other team to finish at .500 or better in all 14 years from 1998-2011 was the Yankees, whose streak will continue.