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The Red Sox headed to Tampa Bay last weekend to take on the Rays in a pivotal three-game series. Five and a half games behind the Rays, the Red Sox needed to take at least two out of three in the series to position the team for the last month of the season. A promising start stoked playoff hopes, but the rest of the weekend left Red Sox nation in a somber state of mind. Here’s a recap of the weekend and a look ahead at what lies in store for the Sox.

Friday

Jon Lester does his best Edwin Jackson imitation, limiting the Rays to two hits while racking up walks at a dizzying rate. While his walks are characteristic of the Little League World Series games that took place last week, the rest of his performance is Major League-caliber. Victor Martinez is the biggest star for an offense that manages ten hits from Rays’ ace David Price. Terry Francona takes no chances in the 8th and 9th, unless Daniel Bard relinquishing the ball at any point to another pitcher qualifies as a risk. A fantastic performance on the whole, the mood in Red Sox Nation is cautiously optimistic.

Saturday

The discrete nature of baseball is just one aspect of the game that attracts those inclined toward quantitative reasoning. Each game is comprised of roughly seventy-five encounters between the pitcher and the batter. The manager of each team decides when to substitute one player for another so as to gain a better match-up. Saturday’s loss hinges on three critical decisions:

a) Clay Buchholz’s incessant throws to first base to ward against a possible steal by Carlos Peña. As is pointed out on the NESN broadcast, Carlos Peña had not shown any intention to steal second. An error on one of Buchholz’s check-throws to first sets the stage for...

b) JD Drew’s decision to exchange a run for an out by catching a ball deep in foul territory. While the names (Chad Qualls, anyone?) in the Rays’ bullpen hardly inspire fear, I don’t think the Red Sox should have relinquished their hard-won, one-run advantage at this point in the game. The live “win probability” tracker at Fangraphs.com affirms that Drew’s catch nudges the Rays 4.6 percent closer to victory.

c) Terry Francona’s decision to leave Clay Buchholz in the game at the start of the eighth inning. Buchholz appeared to labor through the late innings as he ran the count full and remained preoccupied with runners that reached base, but Francona opts to keep him in the game. Buchholz proceeds to surrender a game-tying homer, leaving the game with the score at 2-2 in the bottom of the eighth.

Extra innings on the road are always a dicey proposition; not knowing how long the game might last, Francona plugs Scott Atchison in to face the Rays in the bottom of the 10th rather than the closer, Jonathan Papelbon. Light-hitting Dan Johnson provides the dramatic victory for the Rays on a walk-off home run.

As Johnson’s homer sailed off into the Tampa Bay night sky, er, the lovely array of catwalks and light banks on the roof of Tropicana Field, thousands of disgruntled Red Sox fans reached for their remotes, the tantalizing possibilities of a Red Sox sweep having been swept away.

Sunday

A splendid effort over the first five innings by John Lackey is wasted when the Rays rally for three runs in the bottom of the sixth on the way to a 5-3 victory. The game was crucial, the Red Sox could not execute, and Boston sports radio hosts have forty-eight hours to lament a “lost season” for the Red Sox before the team hopes to regain its winning ways against the resurgent Orioles on Tuesday night in Baltimore.

Hoping for a miracle

With a Tuesday night loss to the Orioles, the Sox sit 7.0 games back in the Wild Card; Baseball Prospectus offers the Sox a 6.3 percent chance of making the playoffs. Alternatively, the predicament could be described as follows: The Red Sox have to make up five games on the Yankees before the season-ending, three-game series at Fenway. Unless the Yankees or Rays transform into the 2007 Mets or even this season’s St. Louis Cardinals, the Sox can start making other plans for October because there won’t be any postseason baseball for them to play.

Upcoming this weekend

One spectacle not to miss this coming weekend is the return of Manny Ramirez, the “exiled” former Red Sox who comes to town with the Chicago White Sox on Friday. Fans upset over the Sox’ struggles will be happy to unleash their pent-up frustration on Ramírez, who earned his ticket out of Boston in 2008 with disinterested play and lack of respect for the team. He loved Boston when it gave him a $160 million contract then hated Boston, endeared himself to the media, ignored the media, sat out games due to questionable “injuries”, and did so much more in his eight-year tenure with the Sox. Most of all, his return recalls fans to the two World Series championships the Sox won with him as those trophies begin to shrink in the rear view mirror of Red Sox Nation.