This is not a matter of the Rays being soft competition. In games against everyone other than the Red Sox, they are 34-26, a .567 winning percentage. That kind of pace would put them in first place in the National League West, or, closer to home, the AL Central.
The last time the Red Sox had a winning season against the Rays was 2007, when Boston went 13-5 against Tampa Bay. That was a World Series championship year for the Sox, but it was a different lifetime for the Tampa Bay franchise; the end of a decade of futility, the last of 10 straight seasons of losing 91 or more games. The next season, the Rays were a World Series team themselves, and since then they have been role models for how to build a winning organization without gigantic sources of revenue.
And the Rays, over the last four seasons, were 51-39 against the Red Sox.
But this year, the Red Sox vs. the Rays has been a one-sided argument, headed in the other direction. It got to the point that Rays manager Joe Maddon, after a sweep by the Sox in a day-night doubleheader on Tuesday said:
"They got us. We have to figure them out."
Perhaps the Rays did some of that in the Wednesday night's game. They had been able to do very little previously with Boston's pitching. In the first five games of this season at Fenway Park, Tampa Bay had scored a total of five runs, while compiling a team batting average of .162. The Rays' overall average for the first 11 games was .214. Maddon, twice AL Manager of the Year in the last five years, knows what he's doing, and he knows what the Red Sox have been doing to his team.
"They have pitched very well against us," Maddon said. "We have not really hit the ball against them. They pitched well against us early in the season, and you've seen it again [in the first two games of this series]. At home in one series, we did score some runs against them. But primarily, they have pitched really, really well against us. It's the one team we have not -- them and Kansas City, Kansas City shut us down a little bit -- but we've played a lot of games that they've held us in check."
There is another crucial aspect to the Red Sox's recent ability to deal with the Rays. Five of Boston's victories over Tampa Bay this season have come in the ninth inning or later.
"Their record is great against us, and a lot of it is the late-inning record that they've accumulated," Maddon said. "That's something that we're not used to, losing all that many games late like we have [against the Red Sox].
"But to their credit, I really believe that they have a heavy amount of grit about them. I mean, the guys that they've picked up this year do present differently, to their credit. If there have been late-inning deficiencies on our part, it's because they have handled those situations so well."
You can translate "grit" as character in this case. When it was suggested to Maddon that perhaps his team could exhibit more "grit," he responded: "I'm talking about experienced grit that's been around for 15 or 20 years and all of a sudden it comes to the forefront. We haven't been around as long as some of their guys. They are this one particular team that seems to have gotten us a little bit."
There it is, the Red Sox transformed against the Rays through pitching and grit. This is not a dismissal of the Rays. Contrary to the way the season series has gone against the Sox, overall they have hit better than expected and have not pitched as well as expected. If the Rays can get their rotation healthy and pitching back to form, this is still a club capable of reaching the postseason.
In this 9-3 record, the 9 is more telling than the 3. The improvement of the Red Sox against the Rays is a realistic reflection of the impressive improvement of the Boston team.