BOSTON — Boston pitcher Jon Lester has been a part of teams that have had late-season success. So he has a sense how the Tampa Bay Rays are feeling now.
“This isn’t our first go-round at this. We’ve got plenty of guys in that clubhouse that have been through it,” he said after the Red Sox fell to Tampa Bay 4-3 on Saturday, slicing their once-large wild-card lead to three games.
“It’s easier when you’re coming from behind than where we’re at. There’s no pressure. Obviously they’re doing a good job,” he said. “We’ve just got to grind it out. That’s the attitude in the clubhouse. We’ve got to stay working and grind. We can’t worry about what’s being said about us or what’s going on.”
Ben Zobrist hit a two-run homer off Lester as the Rays beat Boston for the second time in three days. Veteran knuckleballer Tim Wakefield faces David Price in the series finale on Sunday as the Red Sox hope to take some pressure off in the race.
Jeff Niemann (11-7) pitched five solid innings for Tampa Bay, which has won seven of its last eight against Boston. The Red Sox have lost 10 of their last 13 games since Sept. 3, when they led the wild-card race by nine games.
The lead has been shrinking while the season is winding down. Both teams have 11 games left.
Boston manager Terry Francona was quick to brush aside a question asking how well a team should be playing when it makes the postseason.
“I could care less about that right now,” he said. “I just want to win tomorrow.”
After Matt Moore worked three solid innings for the Rays, Joel Peralta pitched the ninth for his fourth save. Like Friday’s tight game, won 4-3 by the Red Sox. The final out came with the potential tying run on second.
Lester (15-8) went just four innings against Tampa Bay last Sunday, giving up four runs but throwing 111 pitches to lose for the first time in six starts. He was better this time, allowing four runs on five hits and four walks and striking out five in seven innings.
But the result was the same.
Last Sunday, Lester felt like his control was the difference. On Saturday, he was hurt by an early fly ball over Fenway Park’s Green Monster, which stands just 310 feet away down the left-field line.
“He got a 300-foot fly ball that goes out for a homer,” Lester said. “That’s the difference in the game. That’s the joy of playing in Fenway. Takes some away. You get a lot of balls that are hit a lot harder that are singles.”
For the second straight night, the Rays got to Boston’s starter in the first. Desmond Jennings walked to lead off the game and scored on Zobrist’s homer off the top of the Monster. Tampa added another run in the third when Jennings doubled and, after moving up on a groundout, scored on a wild pitch.
The Red Sox made it 3-2 in the bottom half when Mike Aviles hit an RBI double and scored on a sacrifice fly, but Evan Longoria’s run-scoring single in the fifth made it 4-2.
Carl Crawford singled to lead off the seventh against Moore and scored on Jacoby Ellsbury’s groundout to cut the deficit to 4-3, but Moore fanned Dustin Pedroia with Ellsbury on third to end the inning.
David Ortiz hit a long fly ball off Moore in the eighth, but B.J. Upton caught it at the warning track in front of the Boston bullpen.
Aviles had three hits, including a single up the middle with two out in the ninth. But Peralta got Marco Scutaro on a grounder to third to end the game.
Boston is batting just .123 against Niemann, who gave up four hits in five innings, walking two and striking out six.
NOTES: Red Sox RHP Clay Buchholz, who hasn’t pitched since June 16 because of a back injury, threw 30 pitches off a mound and said he would still like to return this year if Boston makes the playoffs. … RHP Bobby Jenks said his pulmonary embolism is being treated with medication and he expects to be ready for the start of spring training. … Boston INF Kevin Youkilis missed his second straight game with a sports hernia. … Longoria has 12 RBIs in five games. …. Zobrist has 10 RBIs in 10 games after getting 1 in his previous 12. … Price (12-12) looks to go over .500 Sunday. Wakefield (7-6) is coming off his 200th career victory. He has 186 wins with the Red Sox, second to Roger Clemens and Cy Young, who are tied with 192.