For four months, the Red Sox and Rays battled in a close race in the American League East by defending their home turf. The Rays won out down the stretch with a pair of key victories at Fenway Park and an almost perfect record at Tropicana Field.
Not only did those victories earn Tampa Bay the victory in the season series, it served as the two-game difference in the division that ended up earning the Rays home-field advantage for this AL Championship Series. It also served as credibility on a national stage for the Rays as an upstart World Series contender.
A few weeks and a Division Series victory later, the Rays are four wins away from the Fall Classic. To get there, though, they'll have to get past the defending world-champion Red Sox once again.
Eight of the 18 regular-season games in this division clash were decided by two runs or fewer. The Rays won all eight of them, including a three-game sweep at Tropicana Field at the end of June comprised of a pair of one-run games and a 3-1 pitching duel. When the Red Sox won, on the other hand, they usually won comfortably, including series sweeps at Fenway in early May and June.
When Boston slugged out six home runs on Sept. 15 for a series-opening, 13-5 rout at Tropicana Field, the Sox seemed poised to finally break their struggles there and punctuate their late charge by retaking the AL East. They were virtually tied with the Rays for the division lead after that victory, but Andy Sonnanstine and the Tampa Bay bullpen answered the next night by essentially pitching Josh Beckett to a draw before Dioner Navarro's walk-off single put the Rays back on top alone.
The rubber game of the series might well have set up the coronation for the Rays, whose three homers off knuckleballer Tim Wakefield sent Tampa Bay on its way to a runaway victory and the eventual division crown.
Regular season by the numbers
Postseason by the numbers
The Rays went 21-2 when their game attendance topped 30,000. Eight of those wins came against the Red Sox, whose nation of fans once made Tropicana Field feel like a second home over the years. The only Boston win at Tampa Bay this season was the only game of the rivalry that didn't top 30,000.
April 25 -- Rays 5, Red Sox 4 (11 innings)
Fresh off a three-game sweep of the Blue Jays at Disney's Wide World of Sports Complex, the Rays returned to their regular home field and won when Nathan Haynes singled in Carl Crawford in the 11th. The win pushed the Rays above .500 at 12-11; they didn't hit the break-even mark again the rest of the year.
April 26 -- Rays 2, Red Sox 1
Clay Buchholz maintained a 1-0 lead nearly through eight innings, but Akinori Iwamura's two-run homer gave Boston a stunning blow. Edwin Jackson allowed a lone run over seven innings.
April 27 -- Rays 3, Red Sox 0
James Shields tossed a complete-game three-hitter and Evan Longoria hit his third home run of the season, a seventh-inning solo shot off Beckett. With that, the Rays had a three-game sweep of the Sox and their best start in franchise history.
May 2 -- Red Sox 7, Rays 3
It wasn't just the Boston weather raining on the Rays' hot start. Buchholz avenged his earlier defeat with 5 1/3 innings of one-run ball. A five-run fourth inning sent the Sox cruising from there.
May 3 -- Red Sox 12, Rays 4
Boston paid back Shields for his shutout with a quick knockout, scoring seven runs on 10 hits over his 3 2/3 innings. David Ortiz doubled twice.
May 4 -- Red Sox 7, Rays 3
Kevin Youkilis drove in four runs and the Red Sox stole five bases for the first time in six years, spoiling Scott Kazmir's season debut and punctuating the sweep. Jon Lester pitched six innings of one-run ball.
June 3 -- Red Sox 7, Rays 4
Back at Fenway Park for the second time in about a month, the Rays gave up home runs to Mike Lowell and J.D. Drew. However, it was a two-run double from Coco Crisp and an RBI single from Jason Varitek that fueled a go-ahead, four-run sixth inning.
June 4 -- Red Sox 5, Rays 1
Already jockeying for postseason position, the Red Sox overtook the Rays for the division lead with six one-run innings from Beckett. Crisp's hard slide and forearm into Iwamura on a stolen base attempt added to the tension between the clubs.
June 5 -- Red Sox 7, Rays 1
Manny Ramirez drove in five runs, including a three-run home run off Shields in the opening inning. But it was a hit-by-pitch to Crisp that knocked Shields out of the game once Crisp charged the mound and tempers erupted.
June 30 -- Rays 5, Red Sox 4
Shields gained some revenge back at Tropicana Field with six quality innings, allowing B.J. Upton's solo homer and Gabe Gross' two-run shot to support him to victory. A Red Sox rally in the ninth inning off an injured Troy Percival, however, made it close.
July 1 -- Rays 3, Red Sox 1
An unearned run was all that Matt Garza allowed over his seven innings, while Navarro supported him with two RBI singles. Jacoby Ellsbury led the Red Sox with three hits and a stolen base.
July 2 -- Rays 7, Red Sox 6
Boston took a 4-1 lead into the bottom of the seventh before six Rays runs in the inning set up a wild close to a win that sealed the series sweep and sent Tampa Bay to a 3 1/2-game lead in the division. Longoria had three hits and three RBIs.
Sept. 8 -- Red Sox 3, Rays 0
The two division contenders met for the first time in two months, and Lester's 7 2/3 scoreless innings at Fenway Park with nine strikeouts moved Boston to within a half-game of Tampa Bay atop the division.
Sept. 9 -- Rays 5, Red Sox 4
Jason Bay's two-run homer in the bottom of the eighth had Boston poised to retake the division lead, but Dan Johnson's game-tying homer off closer Jonathan Papelbon and Navarro's go-ahead single shocked the Fenway faithful.
Sept. 10 -- Rays 4, Red Sox 2 (14 innings)
A national television audience watched the battle for the AL East play out in the rubber game. Carlos Pena's three-run homer in the 14th earned the Rays their first series victory in Boston since 1999.
Sept. 15 -- Red Sox 13, Rays 5
The division was deadlocked after Boston put up nine runs in three-plus innings against Kazmir in St. Petersburg. Youkilis and Ortiz combined for four hits and seven RBIs, including part of the damage in a seven-run fourth inning.
Sept. 16 -- Rays 2, Red Sox 1
Pena's solo homer in the seventh tied the game in the Sonnanstine-Beckett duel, then Navarro's walk-off single put the Rays back alone atop the AL East.
Sept. 17 -- Rays 10, Red Sox 3
The Rays knocked out Wakefield with six runs over 2 1/3 innings -- including homers from Gross, Willy Aybar and Fernando Perez -- and essentially knocked Boston out of control of its own destiny in the division.
Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.