ALMOST THERE: Marc Topkin of the St. Petersburg Times tells us that "[Rays principal] owner Stuart Sternberg and manager Joe Maddon have both spoken fondly this season about seeing the division standings on the Fenway Park leftfield wall with the Rays on top."
And tonight, adds Topkin, might be their last chance to enjoy the view.
The Red Sox are now one night's work away from changing those standings, as they moved to a half-game behind with what Joe McDonald describes as an October-like pitching performance from Jon Lester in a 3-0 blanking of the Rays. The Sox have been plowing along with the intractable determination of a long-distance runner -- in the 11 series they've played after July 31, they've only swept two but they've also only lost one -- in winning 24 of 34 games since the Manny Ramirez trade. Tampa Bay was able to keep the Sox at arm's length with a 21-7 August, but the wheels have come off the cart in September; the Rays are 1-6 this month and their lead, which peaked at 5 1/2 (the last time on Aug. 31), is almost gone.
Scott Kazmir isn't a Sox-killer in the traditional sense -- he's only 6-6 against them in 19 starts in his career -- but he's been dominant against Boston in every other regard since joining Tampa Bay in 2004. (baseball-reference.com) And right now, he's all that stands between the Rays and second place.
THE REAL CURSE: The Rays have accomplished a lot this year, but, writes Sean McAdam, they know that until they prove they can beat the Red Sox at Fenway Park -- they're 0-7 here this season -- they can't really claim they've arrived as a serious contender. The Globe's Nick Cafardo says that, to this point, the Rays have been "the 1967 Sox, the 1980 US hockey team [and] the 2001 Patriots all rolled into one" . . . but that won't remain true unless they seal the deal.
SAD SONGS, THEY SAY SO MUCH: "Good times never seemed so bad" for the Rays was the (very clever) lead on the Tampa Tribune's Marc Lancaster's game story today, and that's the prevailing sentiment in central Florida. Colleague Joe Henderson says the Rays are finding out what September pressure is all about, and a cold month it's been so far. The St. Petersburg Times' John Romano goes a step beyond, writing that while "there is no shame in being caught from behind by the Red Sox . . . there is considerable shame in the way the Rays are allowing this to happen." The players are doing all they can to stop the slide, including holding a player's-only meeting prior to last night's game. (Tampa Tribune)
WHEN IT RAINS, IT POURS: And now it looks like the Rays will be without both B.J. Upton and Shawn Riggans for the rest of the series. (Tampa Tribune) It may mean another Fenway sighting of Jonny Gomes, last seen in these parts raining punches on Coco Crisp (left).
EVERYTHING'S COMING UP ROSES: For as dark as things may look in the visitor's clubhouse, they're just as bright on the home side. The back end of the pitching staff was every bit as dominant as the front end last night, as Jonathan Papelbon (top) got a real save by striking out Rocco Baldelli with two on and two out in the eighth; his night is captured by both the Globe's Adam Kilgore and the Boston Herald's Michael Silverman. Boston.com's Tony Massarotti lauds the Sox' aggressiveness. Both McDonald and the Herald's Steve Harris chronicle the offensive rebirth of Coco Crisp. The Red Sox even broke the MLB record for consecutive home sellouts last night; McDonald and Paul Kenyon tell us all about it.
WELCOME HOME: He didn't have much of a night -- 0-for-4 -- but just having Rhode Island's Rocco Baldelli (above) back on the Fenway Park grass was a moment to remember; there were many times over the course of the last few years when we thought we'd never see him out there again. He tells Kenyon what it's like to be back, and also discusses his situation with Yahoo! Sports' Gordon Edes.
DECISION 2008: Mike Nadel of the Gatehouse News Service says Carlos Quentin's injury means Dustin Pedroia should "handily" win the American League MVP voting.
I'VE LOOKED AT LIFE FROM BOTH SIDES NOW: Eric Hinske enjoyed his time in Boston, and now he's enjoying his time in Tampa Bay. (Boston Herald)
MORE THAN JUST TOM BRADY WENT DOWN: Deadspin thinks the Red Sox are doomed because Brady's injury is a sign that fate "has decreed that Boston's run of sports greatness is over."
HUG IT OUT: Krisztina Holly of Business Week says Manny Ramirez is the best thing to happen to Los Angeles since martinis and plastic surgery, as he's helped "unite this diverse and eclectic city behind a sports team in a way that we haven't been united in years."
'THE GHETTO CAME OUT': What Girardi liked was a sixth-inning skirmish between Torii Hunter and Ivan Rodriguez (left, AP Photo) that emptied the benches. Hunter said Rodriguez "pushed me pretty hard, like a fight in the 'hood," during a tag play on a rundown, and he reacted in kind. (Newsday) They were both ejected as a result, and Hunter apologized "to the fans for my temper."
CHANGE IN MISSION STATEMENT: His old man used to say the bottom line was winning. But Hank Steinbrenner's bottom line is doing "everything [you] could," which, he says, is why Girardi will be back as Yankee manager next year. (New York Post)
THE STORY BEHIND THE STORY: New York Magazine says George Steinbrenner's health and the Yankees are fading simultaneously, which proves that the Boss "was really the straw that stirred the drink." But the blog River Ave. Blues blasts holes in both the premise that Steinbrenner was responsible for the Yankees' success and that the current team is falling apart.
DOWN THE STRETCH THEY COME: SI.com's Jon Heyman handicaps the pennant races.
A.L. RACES: There was no action outside Red Sox-Rays, as the White Sox were rained out (Chicago Sun-Times) and the Twins were idle. (Minneapolis Star-Tribune) . . . The Angels now lead the Rays by 1 1/2 and the Red Sox by 2 in the battle for the A.L.'s best record.
N.L. RACES: The Phillies beat the Marlins, 8-6 (Philadelphia Daily News), and picked up ground in both of their races. They now trail the Mets, who didn't play, by 1 1/2 in the East and the Brewers, who lost, 5-4, to the Reds (Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel), by three in the wild-card race . . . The loss dropped Milwaukee 4 1/2 behind the Cubs, who also didn't play, in the Central . . . The Astros closed to five back in the wild card with a 3-2 win over the Pirates (Houston Chronicle) . . . Both the Dodgers (Los Angeles Times) and the Diamondbacks lost, leaving L.A. ahead by 1 1/2 in the West.
WHAT HIGHER PRAISE? Howard Megdal of the New York Observer thinks the 2008 Mets are less chokey than the 2007 version. But he also gives a couple of in-game examples of how the change in managers from Willie Randolph to Jerry Manuel has helped the team.
RECONSTRUCTION TIME: Billy Wagner will undergo elbow surgery that will sideline him for all of 2009, meaning the Mets are going to have to totally rebuild their bullpen. (Newsday)
'THEY PICKED THE WRONG PERSON TO CHEAT': Unhappy with his season-ticket location at the Mets' new park, "celebrity lawyer" Judd Bernstein is taking the team to court. (New York Post)
ROAD TO RECOVERY: Carlos Zambrano told the Cubs he's feeling fine after a throwing session on Sunday, but the team won't decide on whether or not he'll make a weekend start in Houston until he throws a bullpen session in the next few days. (Chicago Sun-Times)
GOING BACK FOR INSPIRATION: Stan Hochman of the Philadelphia Daily News writes that the "Yes We Can" slogan being used by Barack Obama was coined by ex-big league infielder Dave Cash as a rallying cry for the 1974 Phillies. Cash says it's okay by him if Obama uses it.
L-V-P! L-V-P! Anybody can pick the Most Valuable Player. Tim Marchman of the New York Sun tries to figure out the Least Valuable Player, and concludes it's Gary Matthews Jr. of the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim.
HERE AND THERE: Albert Pujols is thinking of having the reconstructive elbow surgery that doctors have recommended this offseason, which could sideline him for the beginning of the 2009 regular season (St. Louis Post-Dispatch) . . . The Dodgers' Jason Schmidt will undergo arthroscopic shoulder surgery tomorrow (Los Angeles Daily News) . . . The Cubs' Jon Lieber is done for the year (Chicago Sun-Times) . . . The Tigers may start Dontrelle Willis in a game before the end of the season (Detroit News) . . . A broken finger will sideline Pirates shortstop Jack Wilson until at least the last week (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette) . . . The Dodgers may activate Brad Penny on Friday (Los Angeles Daily News) . . . The Indians' Travis Hafner, in Double-A on a rehab assignment, helped Akron eliminate Bowie from the playoffs, and Bowie manager Brad Komminsk isn't too happy about it (masnsports.com) . . . Howie Kendrick and Erick Aybar are running without pain as they attempt to work their way back into the Angels' lineup. (Orange County Register)
OLD FRIENDS: Kevin Millar (right, AP Photo) would love to return to the Orioles in 2009. (Baltimore Sun) The blog Camden Chat likes him well enough, but thinks bringing Millar back would be a horrible idea. ("Instead of 'fun-loving, trash-talking, gear-grinding veteran' Millar, I would like a first baseman that can hit better than .243/.330/.412 [95 OPS+, 6.8 VORP, .262 EqA, -.030 MLVr"].)
AND FINALLY . . . Congratulations to old friend Sean Forman of the can't-do-without baseball-reference.com site, who is being credited for doing the research that enabled MLB to determine Gary Sheffield hit the 250,000th home run in major-league history last night. (mlb.com)
-- ART MARTONE