ST. PETERSBURG -- Winning the weekend series with the Red Sox would have been a nice start to the second half for the Rays.
That did not happen.
Instead, the Rays took a 7-3 loss to their American League East rival at Tropicana Field on Sunday with 26,131 watching, falling to 46-43 in the process. The Red Sox now hold a 7-5 advantage over the Rays in the season series.
Tropicana Field had been a paradise for the Rays at the beginning of the season when they charged out of the gates with a 13-1 home record. Since that auspicious beginning, the Rays are 12-20 at home.
Sunday's game saw the Rays take an early 3-1 lead, only to watch the Red Sox storm from behind to take the win.
James Shields started for the Rays and experienced a rough beginning, but he managed to limit the damage in a 29-pitch first inning, surrendering just one run on an Adrian Gonzalez RBI single despite issuing two walks.
Meanwhile, Josh Beckett started for the Red Sox and he, too, struggled in the first inning, surrendering an RBI single to Ben Zobrist and a two-run single to Desmond Jennings as the Rays took a 3-1 lead.
Mike Aviles answered for the Red Sox with a two-run homer off Shields in the second that tied the score at 3.
"Getting three runs against their guy early was kind of nice," Rays manager Joe Maddon said. "I felt pretty good about that actually. ... We had a nice momentum component going early in the game and we lost it very quickly."
By the time the second inning had run its course, Shields and Beckett together had thrown 90 pitches. At that point, neither pitcher appeared destined to pitch much farther into the game. However, while Beckett managed to right his ship, Shields did not.
Shields seemed close to finding himself when he held the Red Sox scoreless in the third and fourth innings. But Daniel Nava broke the silence with a solo home run in the fifth, and Will Middlebrooks added a two-run single to put the Red Sox up, 6-3.
The fifth turned out to be Shields' final inning, matching his shortest outing of the season. Shields allowed 11 hits, the fourth consecutive game in which he's given up at least 10 hits. After finishing third in the AL Cy Young voting in 2011, Shields got off to a 5-0 start, but Sunday's loss put him at 8-6.
"Everything is great [physically]," Shields said. "I just got behind in the count and I wasn't executing my pitch when I needed to."
Maddon did not deny that the Rays need Shields to get back on track if the team is going to remain in contention.
"He is a big part of what we do," Maddon said. "Last year at this time, all the platitudes were just jumping all over the place. He was getting complete games, like 110, 115 pitches max. ... He was doing it a lot more easily, better counts, getting ahead in the count, kind of a simple approach, and I think definitely if he's done it in the past, he can do it again. It's just a matter of whomever the athlete is just to recognize the adjustments they want to make and go ahead and make them."
Shields said "of course it's frustrating" when asked about going through his current stretch.
"I'm not doing my job right now," Shields said. "The bottom line is I've got to do better."
Beckett, who has dominated the Rays throughout his career, finished strong. He posted five consecutive scoreless frames after his tough start to pick up his fifth win of the season, despite recently being sick with the flu.
To combat the way he felt, Beckett took a Z-Pak quicker than usual.
"[I] felt like that slowed his pace and kept him from finding his footing in the first," Red Sox manager Bobby Valentine said.
"I think it just zapped me," Beckett said. "It took me a long time to gather myself between pitches."
Eventually, Beckett said he just started making better pitches, even though he continued to fight his sickness.
"In between pitches, it was like borderline blackout periods," Beckett said. "The only thing I can think that it is, is the medicine."
Sunday's game ended with Hideki Matsui batting against Alfredo Aceves with two outs and the bases loaded. When he made contact with Aceves' second pitch, a 95-mph fastball, the fans initially thought, "Tie game," but Red Sox right fielder Cody Ross made the catch for the final out.
"Just missed that last one, man," Maddon said.
Matsui's near homer seemed to personify the way things are going for the Rays lately. In the visiting clubhouse, the Red Sox felt like they were heading in another direction.
"Well, two out of three is good with a near miss on the sweep," Valentine said. "I like the way we're coming together."
Bill Chastain is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.