On Aug. 24, the Rays sat percentage points ahead of the Red Sox atop the American League East, setting the stage for what figured to be a thrilling September finish.
Two and a half weeks later, the Rays are in the thick of a thrilling September, as projected -- only it's not the one they had hoped for.
Boston has pulled ahead decisively in the division, holding a 9 1/2-game lead entering Thursday's series finale against Tampa Bay. The Rays, meanwhile, have gone a Major League worst 4-13 since they last held the AL East lead, and have seen their AL Wild Card edge dwindle to just one game over the Yankees. Baltimore (1 1/2 back), Cleveland (1 1/2 back) and Kansas City (two back) are all hot on their trail as well.
One more victory would give Boston 90, a year after they lost 93 games.
"One thing we didn't do is set a number or a goal for the number of wins," manager John Farrell said. "We felt like if we took care of our daily work it would lead us to whatever that is, and hopefully it was in contention for this division title.
"But I think a number can also limit you. Sure, 90 wins signifies a successful year, but hopefully we don't stop there."
Boston sends right-hander Jake Peavy to the hill on Thursday, looking to build on the solid start to his Red Sox career. In seven starts with Boston since he was acquired from the White Sox at the non-waiver Trade Deadline, Peavy is 3-1 with a 3.55 ERA.
He'll be opposed by Rays right-hander Jeremy Hellickson, who threw 5 1/3 scoreless frames in Anaheim on Sept. 4, working on eight days' rest. This time around, Hellickson had seven days between starts.
"Taking a few days off was not a bad thing -- as bad as I wanted to be out there," Hellickson said. "It definitely helped. I felt a lot fresher."
In two starts against Boston this season -- both on the road -- Hellickson has looked very sharp. He allowed two earned runs in each outing, working seven innings in April and six in June.
"One through nine, they're tough," Hellickson said. "They're leading the division for a reason. They have a lot of speed and power. It's a very complete lineup."
Red Sox: Salty set for return
Catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia is expected to return to the lineup on Thursday after receiving a scheduled day off on Wednesday night.
Saltalamacchia missed five days last week because of a sore back, and Wednesday's day of rest was strictly precautionary.
"Just being a little [conservative], spreading out the workload as best possible until he's completely out of the woods, and he's not hindered by anything," Farrell said.
Rays: Treacherous path to postseason
Among the five teams within two games of the second AL Wild Card berth, the Rays' nine remaining road contests are the fewest.
That doesn't mean their road to October will be easy -- far from it, in fact. Tampa Bay has 12 games remaining against teams still in contention -- the most among all the clubs vying for an AL playoff berth.
• Tampa Bay first baseman James Loney has hit Peavy hard in the past, notching nine hits -- including four doubles and two homers -- in 28 at-bats.
• Rays pitchers have held their opponents to four hits or fewer a league-leading 20 times. All three of their losses when doing so have come against the Red Sox.
• David Ortiz sports a lifetime .500 on-base percentage and .773 slugging percentage in 28 plate appearances against Hellickson.