ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- The math is still in Boston's favor, even though its lead over the Tampa Bay Rays has been cut from 6 1/2 games to 4 1/2 with 17 to play after losses in each of the last two nights.
Now it's up to the men wearing the Red Sox uniforms to make the numbers work for them.
Specifically one man, left-hander Jon Lester, the best possible option left for Terry Francona to run out to the mound Sunday to make the Tampa Bay Rays cease and desist in their long-shot efforts to overtake the Red Sox for the wild-card spot in the American League playoffs.
Lester is coming off a win in his last start in which he allowed just three hits in seven scoreless innings in Toronto. He has allowed one run or fewer in his last five starts, going 4-0 with a 1.16 ERA in that span. Only Lefty Grove in 1936 can claim the same among Sox left-handers.
Lester also has had great success against the Rays, holding them to a run on three hits in a 3-1 win in Boston on Aug. 18. He has never lost in the regular season at the Trop, going 4-0 with a 2.92 ERA. He is 6-2 overall in his last eight starts against the Rays.
The Sox gave it a shot Saturday night, Jarrod Saltalamacchia and Jacoby Ellsbury hitting back-to-back home runs off Rays closer Kyle Farnsworth in the ninth inning to tie the score at 5. Jonathan Papelbon then gave the Sox two scoreless innings before Daniel Bard, in his first appearance since his meltdown on Wake-for-200 night in Toronto, gave up a leadoff triple to Desmond Jennings and, one out later, an 0-and-2 single to Evan Longoria to win it.
Longoria's hit was the first by either team with a runner in scoring position. The Sox were 0 for 10, the Rays 0 for 12 until Longoria delivered.
Adrian Gonzalez hit a majestic two-run home run to tie the score at 3, but Casey Kotchman broke the tie with a home run in the bottom of the fifth and the Rays tacked on another run an inning later with a hit batsman, bloop single, and sacrifice fly by Evan Longoria.
Both runs came off Alfredo Aceves, called upon to rescue another Sox starter who departed early. This time it was rookie Kyle Weiland, who put 10 base-runners on in the first four innings (6 hits, 3 walks and a hit batsman) but limited the early damage to three runs. Still, it was the eighth time in the last 10 games that a Sox starter has gone five innings or fewer, which puts an untenable load on the bullpen.
The rotation remains in flux, as Erik Bedard is expected to miss another start, it is uncertain whether Josh Beckett will make his, and Terry Francona intends to run out John Lackey and his bloated 6.30 ERA yet again on Wednesday.
And a Sox offense that put up double-digits in runs twice last week in Toronto continues to struggle against the Rays, who used five relievers to spell rookie-of-the-year candidate Jeremy Hellickson, who was cruising until Gonzalez took him deep with his 25th home run in the top of the fifth.
The task does not get any easier Sunday as the Rays will throw James Shields. The Sox have had success against Shields, who is just 6-11 with a 4.84 ERA in his career against them, but he threw a five-hit shutout against them here in June, and he pitched well in losing a duel to Lester in August, with Boston's only runs coming on a 3-run homer by Jacoby Ellsbury.