ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. - The mutual admiration was running deep before Friday's first of 19 overall meetings, and the opening of back-to-back weekend series, between the Rays and the Red Sox, a 6-4 Boston win.
On the Rays' side of the field, they made a point to be charitable about the defending champs' rough 6-13 start and complimentary about their potential to turn things around.
"Without a doubt," Rays manager Kevin Cash said. "They're very talented first and foremost. They're very well managed. We're not too concerned about their slow start. We know they're really good."
"We knew they have a really good team," added center fielder Kevin Kiermaier. "I know they haven't gotten out of the gate quite like they wanted to, but the talent that's over in that clubhouse, there's no denying that."
In the visiting dugout, Boston manager Alex Cora was similarly effusive, insisting the Rays' strong 14-5 start wasn't a surprise, and revisiting his thoughts from last year that if the season was two weeks longer they would have made the playoffs.
"They have a great team," Cora said. "Everyone knows it in the big leagues. It's not that nobody knows what's going on here. "They did an outstanding job the second part of (last) season. They did an outstanding job in the offseason. They're very athletic. They can pitch. They can play defense. They do everything right. And right now they're the best team in the big leagues."
There was plenty of agreement that the Sox are better than they've been, and will soon show it.
The question was the timing.
"I know what their record is," Cash said, "but we say "struggling" - in any given game they can flip the switch and reel off 10 in a row with any team in baseball."
"They're going to come out and click here pretty soon," Kiermaier said. "We're going to do our best to make sure it's not (this) weekend."
And what better time, Cora said, than now?
"I'm glad they think that way; we feel the same way," he said. "We're good, it's just a matter of playing better baseball. It starts with getting healthy. Not using that as an excuse but today I feel more comfortable than I did (Thursday) or two days ago (when they limited with several players dealing with injuries). We've got 25 guys who can post. They're young kids, but we believe in them. The pitching's turned around. ...
"It's the way you see the game. I'm very positive. I have a lot of conviction in what we do as an organization and as a team. To answer the question, yea, we believe we're going to be there. We're going to be there. We're going to turn it around. It's just a matter of how quick we do it. And hopefully we can start that here. ... Last year it started here, so why not start again this year here at Tropicana Field."
With the Trop loud and vibrant with a mixed allegiance crowd of 21,343, the Rays, as has been their recent MO, got off to a good start.
Brandon Lowe homered, his sixth in 20 team games, to give them a 1-0 lead in the second, and Avisail Garcia stayed hot by tripling in Yandy Diaz with two outs in the second to make it 2-0.
Even with scheduled starter Blake Snell sidelined due to a broken toe from an unfortunate and painful bathroom incident, the Rays pitchers showed well early on.
Ryne Stanek worked as the opener for the second time in three straight days of that strategy and was followed by Ryan Yarbrough. Between them they kept the Red Sox hitless into the fifth inning.
But then the Sox showed some of that life, scoring three runs, taking advantage of a leadoff walk to J.D. Martinez, getting a one-out RBI double by Rafael Devers and a two-run homer by Christian Vazquez that centerfielder Guillermo Heredia, starting with Kiermaier resting, couldn't leap to grab.
The Sox added a run in the sixth when reliever Wilmer Font, who continues to look like his future is short, started the inning with a walk and two hits.
The Rays came back to tie it quickly. Austin Meadows opened their sixth with a single and Garcia, who keeps hitting the ball often and hard, reached on a mishandled grounder.
Daniel Robertson, who was hitless in his 21 previous at-bats, then came through with a big one, doubling down the third-base line. The tie lasted only until the eighth.
The Rays turned to Diego Castillo, one of their most reliable relievers. But he had a bad night, allowing Boston's first back to back homers of the season, to Mookie Betts and Mitch Moreland.
The series continues Saturday at 6:10, with Charlie Morton on the mound for the Rays against Boston's Rick Porcello.
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