It was Aug. 17 and the Rays were leaving town having taken two out of three against the Red Sox. Still, reality had seemingly set in for Tampa Bay, which found itself eight games in back of the Sox in the chase for the wild card with 39 games left to play.
Johnny Damon stood in front of his locker in the Fenway Park visitors clubhouse, trying to do the math as to how the Rays could make a go of it. Even putting the best face on it, the outfielder suggested that it wasn't going to add up in his team's favor.
On Sunday the image was eerily similar, with Damon executing some quick ciphering. This time the equation was dramatically different.
Ten games left, with the Red Sox holding a two-game lead in the wild card race over a Rays team that, after Sunday's series-capping 8-5 win over the Sox, are an impressive 11-6 in September.
When reminded of that day he frustratingly tried to make the numbers go his way, Damon laughed and reveled in the chance to offer an entirely difference scenario.
"It feels very real," he said. "Ten games left. We know we have to win ballgames and hopefully we can win all 10 of them. And if we do that we know we're in good shape. We just need Boston to lose more. I'm sure it is going to come down to possibly the last day."
For both the Rays and Red Sox, that last day will be September 28, with Joe Maddon's team finishing off with a 7:10 p.m. game in St. Petersburg against the Yankees, and Terry Francona's club closing things out in Baltimore, playing at 7:05 that night.
So as we count down to the final days of this journey, let's look at what we can expect as the baseball fans of New England brace themselves for a roller coaster ride few saw coming:
WHAT THE RED SOX ARE WORKING WITH
"We're happy as [expletive," said Red Sox second baseman Dustin Pedroia. "We've got a two-game lead with 10 to go. We're ready to go. We just haven't played real good. We're not going to sit back and feel sorry for ourselves because we're playing like crap. Nobody's going to give us anything."
The next three games will see rookie Kyle Weiland, John Lackey and Erik Bedard get the starts for the Sox against the Orioles at Fenway Park, with Josh Beckett pitching the series finale Wednesday.
This is where this race will be won or loss for the Red Sox, with starting pitching. It is why they have suffered through a 4-13 mark this month, and offers the best chance to turn things around.
The starters ERA in September is 6.37, with Sunday marking just the second time in the month a Red Sox hurler has pitched as many as seven innings. The starting pitchers have gone fewer than six innings an amazing 10 times in the last 17 games, averaging 4.8 innings per start. They have totaled 81 1/3 innings, just 9 2/3 frames more than their relievers.
That isn't going to win you many games.
The problem doesn't figure to be going anywhere, either, with both Weiland and Bedard expected to have their pitch counts reeled in at least somewhat.
The encouraging aspect of the short-term future is that both Weiland and Lackey have had some success against the Orioles, with the rookie turning in a six-inning, three-run outing on July 19, and Lackey coming away with 6 2/3 innings of shutout ball in his only start vs. Baltimore this season.
Bedard also had success in his only outing against his old team, giving up two runs over 6 1/3 innings. It would seem that an effective return by the lefty would go a long way to helping fix the problem. He said after tossing his bullpen session Saturday there was no pain in either his lat or knee when throwing, which might be some of the most important news the Sox have received in some time.
Depending on how Weiland's start goes, and how the Sox view the status of Tim Wakefield (who has the longest streak of giving up more than three runs in his career), Alfredo Aceves could be an option. In four outings against the Orioles, he has allowed four runs in 10 innings, three of which came in his last appearance in Baltimore, a two-inning stint.
If that move is made, of course, adjustments would have to executed in the bullpen. The Sox would be forced to alter their seventh inning relief plan. It should be noted that Matt Albers took a step in the right direction Sunday, executing just his third flawless outing (1 1/3 innings) since July 25.
A few other call-ups have offered encouragement,with Scott Atchison coming away with back-to-back scoreless outings, and Trever Miller still not having allowed a baserunner in his two appearances as a Red Sox.
THE ORIOLES COULD PRESENT PROBLEMS
This is by no means a juggernaut, despite the image they offered in giving Tampa Bay fits before the Rays came to Fenway. Baltimore is 8-9 this month, carrying a subpar 4.48 ERA and .240 batting average.
The O's do have, pieces, however, which were on display in taking two of three agains the other Wild Card contender, the Angels.
Jeremy Guthrie, who will face off with Weiland in the first game of Monday's doubleheader has been stellar of late. In his past two starts he has allowed a total of two runs and six hits over 14 innings. In his last five starts, the righty has managed a 2.53 ERA with opponents hitting just .207 against him.
The rest of the Baltimore starters -- Zach Britton, Tommy Hunter and Alfredo Simon -- haven't been overly daunting, although Britton is coming off a seven-inning outing in which he held the Angels to one run over seven innings.
One thing of note should be how good the O's bullpen has been in September, holding opponents to a .175 batting average (the best in the major leagues) while converting five of six save opportunities.
As for hitters to watch, old friend Vladmir Guerrero is making a strong push at the end of a contract year, hitting .413 with 1.115 OPS in September.
THE RAYS FEEL PRETTY GOOD ABOUT THEMSELVES
“There’s this energy derived from winning, and it’s palpable," Rays manager Joe Maddon said after his team's latest win. "You wake up in the morning, it’s there. It’s your buddy, and you carry it around with you all day. If you don’t win, it’s not there, and you’re looking for it. And then you have to try to manufacture it on your own. We’ll wake up with that good energy. We just have to maintain it. We have to take care of the seconds. We have to keep playing as hard as we are, keep executing like we are, and above all keep pitching like we are. The pitching is the centerpiece to all this."
To say the vibe in the Tampa Bay clubhouse after Sunday's win was unique would be an understatement. A major league team marching to a train ride to New York while wearing custom-made letterman sweaters (with each player's number on the sleeve) suggests there is something out-of-the-ordinary going on.
It is a young team -- with the Rays' entire starting rotation sitting under 30 -- which makes such wackiness easier to execute. It has, as Damon points out, put Tampa Bay in a much more advantageous position when it comes to overall health.
"There hasn't been any pressure on us," Damon said. "We knew we were so many games out. We know we're still out, but going out we're playing very loose. We started this trip about three weeks ago. It's enjoyable what we're doing. We're playing big league baseball. We have a good team. We have a young team that's probably a lot healthier and stronger than these teams down the stretch, and this is where it's got us, two games out of the Wild Card right now and we're hoping to keep on climbing."
The Red Sox understand how well the Rays play against them, but the only thing that matters now is how well Tampa Bay executes vs. the Yankees and Blue Jays.
The Rays record against New York is 5-6 this season, although they have won two of the last three, beating CC Sabathia both times. Tampa Bay has hit just .229 against the Yanks' pitching. And while Maddon's club has been successful in all but four of its stolen base attempts against the Red Sox, it is just 7-for-15 vs. the Yankees.
The one constant the Rays have been able to deliver against the Red Sox and Yankees is starting pitching. In Jeff Niemann's only outing against New York he allowed just a run in 7 1/3 innings, while James Shields has surrendered just four earned runs in 22 2/3 innings (1.59 ERA) vs. the Yanks.
David Price -- who appears OK after being checked at Massachusetts General Hospital Sunday after being hit in the chest with a Mike Aviles line-drive, might be the wild card. His first two outings against New York were unimpressive, totaling nine runs allowed in a pair of five-inning starts. But in his last two showdowns with the Yanks, Price has come away with a 7 1/3-inning, two-run start, and an eight-inning, one-run appearance.
As for the Rays' success against Toronto, Tampa Bay has had enormous success, taking 10 of the teams' 15 meetings, including five wins in the last six get-togethers.
The Blue Jays' batters have hit just .216 against Rays pitching, with Shields and Price absolutely dominating John Farrell's hitters. In 25 1/3 innings, Shields has allowed the Jays just two runs, while Price's total is seven earned runs over 30 1/3 innings.
On the flip-side, Ricky Romero has had some success in his four starts against the Rays, compiling a 2.25 ERA while going 3-1. The Blue Jays are also playing somewhat inspired of late, winning six of their last nine games against the Red Sox and Yankees.
"We know what we're up against," Damon said. "We know how cool of a story this will be. We don't want this to slip through our fingers. We want to attack this and try and make our own history."