ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — Tampa Bay manager Joe Maddon remembers how it used to be between the Red Sox and the Rays.
“I think I read it at some point — and I do read once in a while — that we were a punching bag for a while,” he said before his Rays fell, 3-1, to the Red Sox in Game 4 of American League Division Series.
He remembers when the Rays finally stood up to their American League East bullies, the brawl in the summer of 2008, and the rematch in that year’s AL Championship Series when the Rays finally pushed back.
“Eventually we stopped being their punching bag, or the Yankees’ punching bag,” he said.
It was a turning point for a franchise that had spent a decade’s worth of summers getting picked on by its division rivals.
This ALDS was the first time the teams have met in the postseason since, with the Rays transforming into a division force.
Still, whether it’s the Rays reaching the postseason at the expense of the Sox in 2011 or any of their tense, regular-season matchups, the teams are perpetually intertwined.
“Since 2008, I think it’s kind of flipped obviously, and that moment, then, when we were able to beat them in the Championship Series, to move on to the World Series, that was pretty impressive,” Maddon said. “That turned everything around around here. But even moving beyond that, the comeback from a couple of years ago when we had that really huge deficit in September, able to overcome that, and then eventually overtake them, that was pretty significant, also.’’
For the first time since 2007, the Sox were able to win the regular-season series, taking 12 of the 19 games, including all three extra-inning marathons. The games were typically tight, 10 of them decided by two runs or fewer, with the Sox winning three in walkoff fashion.
“They had their way with us this year,” Maddon said.
Still, the Rays manager said the more the teams play, the more it adds to the fabric of a franchise that’s carving out a place for itself among the best in baseball.
“The tradition has to begin somewhere,” Maddon said. “Hopefully we’re building ours right now. You look at the fan base, we’re trying to build that. We’re trying to bring the younger group into our fold. And again, we’re living it, so we don’t have the benefit of 50 years from now looking back.
“All these games matter, when you start building a tradition, all this stuff, allure counts.’’
No set slugger
In the past three games, three different Rays have been plugged in as the designated hitter.
After going with Matt Joyce in Game 3 over Delmon Young, who seemed to settle into the role at the end of the regular season, Maddon gave the nod to Kelly Johnson in Game 4, hitting him seventh in the lineup.
Even though the difference between Young and Johnson’s career splits against Red Sox starter Jake Peavy were negligible (Young was 3 for 13, Johnson was 2 for 12), Maddon felt more comfortable going with the lefthanded hitter.
Johnson went 0 for 2 Tuesday before being lifted for Young, who went 0 for 1.
“We’re not afraid to do things,” Maddon said. “It was just back and forth. It’s not easy. Our lineups are not easy to assemble. We don’t have the cookie-cutter, nine-guys, let’s-go lineup. We set it up to be platooned and that’s how we work it in the offseason. When it comes to this time of the season, it’s no different. We still continue working the process right down to the last drop.”
They’re showing up
Although the Rays sold out their postseason home opener, tickets were still available before the start of Tuesday night’s game. With Monday’s sellout, the Rays drew a crowd of more than 30,000 for the 13th time in the franchise’s postseason history.
In those games, the Rays were 6-7. When they’ve drawn that many fans to Tropicana Field in the regular season, however, they’re 49-17.
Maddon said the atmosphere makes a difference.
“Every time it has filled up it seems to bring out the best in us,” Maddon said. “Normally, just being honest, over the years you’ve seen a lot of other teams’ fans in the ballpark under those circumstances.
“It definitely had that pro-Rays vibe to it [Monday] night. We felt it in the dugout through the entire game. It was spectacular. We’d like to see it look like that more consistently, obviously, because it does matter.”
Price was next
Lefthander David Price, who lost Game 2, would have started Game 5. He was warming up in the ninth in case the Rays tied it. In four career ALDS starts, Price is 0-4 with a 5.81 ERA . . . Rhode Island’s Rocco Baldelli, who starred for the Rays and played briefly for the Red Sox, threw out the ceremonial first pitch.Julian Benbow can be reached at email@example.com.