ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — For a game featuring teams with losing records in late July, Friday night’s matchup between the Red Sox and Tampa Bay Rays was loaded with intrigue.
Scouts flocked to see two of the best starters in the game, lefthanders Jon Lester and David Price, with the non-waiver trade deadline coming up next week.
Fans were eager for a different reason as Price was facing the Red Sox for the first time since he drilled David Ortiz on May 30. That led to a benches-clearing brawl later in the game.
Price did his part, pitching eight strong innings as the Rays beat the slumping Sox, 6-4, before a crowd of 23,136 at Tropicana Field.
Lester pitched well over six innings before the Red Sox bullpen gave away the lead in the seventh inning, allowing four runs.
The Red Sox seemed intent on making something of their season when they won the first four games after the All-Star break. They had won eight of nine at that point.
Four straight losses later and Thursday’s trade deadline now stands as perhaps the biggest day of the season for the Sox.
“It’s obviously tough, especially right now where we’re at in the season. Time’s running short,” Lester said. “We all know what’s coming next week. We can only do one thing: that’s take one game at a time. Show up tomorrow and try to win tomorrow. That’s all we can control.”
The Rays have won eight straight. Price (11-7) allowed three runs on eight hits. He struck out 10 without a walk and coexisted peacefully with Ortiz, who was 1 for 4 with an RBI single.
Jake McGee gave up a run on two hits in the ninth inning but picked up his 10th save. Shane Victorino was 2 for 4 with a home run and two RBIs for the Red Sox.
Price has been one of the hottest starters in the game. He had a 1.72 earned run average in his last 10 starts and had not given up a run in 16 consecutive innings coming into the game.
That streak ended in the second inning when Victorino lined a cut fastball over the fence in left field. Victorino smacked his hands together as he rounded first base. The home run was his first since May 21.
Price retired 11 of the next 13 batters before Dustin Pedroia lined a double to the gap in left field with one out in the sixth inning.
With the crowd booing, Ortiz worked the count full, fouled off a 94-mile-per-hour fastball and then rocketed a single into right field to score Pedroia.
Mike Napoli lined out to right field but singles by Jonny Gomes and Victorino gave the Red Sox a 3-2 lead.
That the Sox did well against Price didn’t register with Ortiz.
“Don’t matter if you end up losing. Who cares?” he said.
Lester allowed two runs on six hits with one walk and seven strikeouts. He has a 1.07 earned run average in his last eight starts.
But one inning proved decisive in the game.
Tampa Bay took a 2-1 lead in the fifth. James Loney had a leadoff single before Lester got two outs. He then fell behind Desmond Jennings before leaving a two-seam fastball up in the strike zone. Jennings drove the ball over the wall in left-center for his ninth home run.
The home run was the first Lester allowed since June 7. It also snapped a string of 18 consecutive scoreless innings.
Ben Zobrist singled and Brandon Guyer walked before Lester got Evan Longoria on a fly ball to left field to end a 35-pitch inning.
“It was a bad pitch to Jennings. Pulled a two-seamer, got too much of the plate,” Lester said. “Fell behind, had a lot of long at-bats that inning.”
Lester retired the side in order in the sixth inning, but was at 110 pitches to that point.
“With the exception of the 35 pitches in the fifth inning, he was as good as Jon has been. He did his job once again, which he’s been doing every time out,” manager John Farrell said.
Said Lester: “To leave up 3-2 against David Price is a good feeling.”
Andrew Miller started the seventh inning. Poor command and poor defense cost Lester a win.
Miller hit light-hitting Jose Molina with a pitch before striking out Logan Forsythe. The Sox went to Junichi Tazawa to face Jennings, a righthanded hitter. Jennings walked before Zobrist singled to shallow left field.
Gomes overran the ball and pinch runner Cole Figueroa scored from second. Jennings took third on the play and yet no error was charged to Gomes.
Guyer walked to load the bases for Longoria. Longoria pounded a curveball down the line in left for a bases-clearing double and the Rays had a 6-3 lead.
Tazawa, who had not pitched since Sunday, had little command of his fastball. The Red Sox elected not to use Tazawa in a four-game series against Toronto earlier this week, largely because the righthander has allowed 11 earned runs on 20 hits — seven home runs — over 10⅓ innings against the Blue Jays the last two seasons.
It was the first time in 159 relief appearances that Tazawa walked two batters. He had not allowed more than two runs since giving up five in a long-relief outing in 2009.
“Between he and Andrew, very uncharacteristic seventh inning,” Farrell said.Peter Abraham can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @PeteAbe.