Boston Red Sox at Tampa Bay Rays series primer

Before the season, the Boston Red Sox and Tampa Bay Rays figured to be American League East contenders throughout the year. Both fought for prime positioning within the division in 2013. Both met in the ALDS, with the Red Sox winning in four games. Both had high optimism entering the spring with key core members returning. There was little reason to doubt their ability to compete once more. Time has taken its toll.

Tampa Bay Rays third baseman Evan Longoria has hit 17 home runs and 76 RBI this season.

Kim Klement / USA TODAY Sports

This wasn't expected.

Before the season, the Boston Red Sox and Tampa Bay Rays figured to be American League East contenders throughout the year. Both fought for prime positioning within the division in 2013. Both met in the ALDS, with the Red Sox winning in four games. Both had high optimism entering the spring with key core members returning. There was little reason to doubt their ability to compete once more.

Time has taken its toll.

September is almost here, and the landscape looks much different for both. The Red Sox all but gave up on the season by shipping off key parts, including left-hander Jon Lester, by the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline. The Rays showed life with a respectable sprint from June 25-July 29, but since former ace David Price was traded to the Detroit Tigers on July 31, that spark has been gone.

The Rays are 65-69, good for fourth place in the AL East. The Red Sox are in last place in the division at 58-75. The next four days will be a chance to reflect on how the summer can grind on hopes and October dreams, how trades and injuries and underwhelming production can leave a dreaded mark.

It's simple to see why both teams live their current predicament. The Rays became victims of a subpar offense as their pitching recovered from an early lull. They have scored 523 runs, and only the Red Sox's 512 are worse in the AL. The Red Sox, meanwhile, all but waved a white flag on their season when general manager Ben Cherington unloaded key names by the non-waiver trade deadline. They have turned their sights to 2015.

Both Boston and Tampa Bay, in March, figured to be contenders again. As both move into September, though, a different reality has long since been part of life.

Here's a closer look at the upcoming Rays-Red Sox series ...

SCHEDULE AND PROBABLE PITCHERS

August 29 (Sun Sports -- pregame coverage begins at 6:30 p.m.)
Anthony Ranaudo (2-0 4.50 ERA) vs. Chris Archer (8-6, 3.09 ERA)

August 30 (Sun Sports -- pregame coverage begins at 6:30 p.m.)
Allen Webster (3-2, 5.81 ERA) vs. Jake Odorizzi (9-11, 4.23 ERA)

August 31 (Sun Sports -- pregame coverage begins at 1:00 p.m.)
Clay Buchholz (5-8, 5.77 ERA) vs. Alex Cobb (9-6, 3.06 ERA)

September 1 (Sun Sports -- pregame coverage begins at 12:30 p.m.)
Rubby De La Rosa (4-5, 3.81 ERA) vs. Drew Smyly (9-10, 3.31 ERA)

WHO'S HOT

Yoenis Cespedes (Red Sox): He hit .417 (10 for 24) with one home run and seven RBI in seven games from Aug. 21-27. He had three multi-hit games in the span, including two with three hits each, against the Seattle Mariners on Aug. 24 and Toronto Blue Jays on Aug. 26. He has hit .260 with 21 home runs and 87 RBI this season.

Evan Longoria (Rays): He hit .345 (10 for 29) with two home runs and nine RBI in seven games from Aug. 22-28. He had three multi-hit games in the span, including two contests with three hits each, in victories over the Toronto Blue Jays on Aug. 22 and Baltimore Orioles on Aug. 27. He has hit .255 with 17 home runs and 76 RBI this season.

WHO'S NOT

Christian Vazquez (Red Sox): He hit .111 (2 for 18) with two strikeouts in six games from Aug. 21-27. He went hitless in four games in the span. He has hit .225 with 12 RBI this season.

Wil Myers (Rays): He hit .185 (5 for 27) with nine strikeouts in seven games from Aug. 22-28. He went hitless in two games in the span. He has hit .216 with six home runs and 27 RBI this season.

STORYLINES

9: Runners stranded by the Rays in their 4-2 loss to the Orioles on Tuesday at Camden Yards. They also had two runners thrown out at home plate.

2: Hit allowed by left-hander Drew Smyly in the Rays' 3-1 victory over the Orioles on Wednesday at Camden Yards. He's 3-1 with a 1.50 ERA in five starts since being traded from the Tigers on July 31.

8: Games the Rays trail the Tigers and Seattle Mariners for the second American League wild-card spot. Baseball Prospectus gives Tampa Bay a 0.6-percent chance of making the postseason.

QUOTE BOARD

"We haven't really played that poorly. We've played pretty well. The pitching staff has done well. I think really (we have to) just control what we can control, continue to believe and have fun." --€“ Third baseman Evan Longoria, after the Rays' loss Tuesday. Tampa Bay tied Baltimore at 2 in the top of the fifth inning but allowed the final two runs in the sixth and seventh innings in the loss.

"It's probably one of the better stretches I've had as a starter. Really, since the All-Star break I've felt like I've kind of turned the page and done pretty well. That's what you look for, you try to get on a good roll, a good rhythm, and try to carry them over." -- Smyly, after the Rays' victory Wednesday. Smyly is 6-0 with a 1.32 ERA in 18 career appearances against AL East teams.

"We uncharacteristically gave this game up on defense tonight." -€“- Manager Joe Maddon, after the Rays' 5-4 loss Thursday at Camden Yards. Tampa Bay committed two errors in the defeat.

GIVEAWAYS

August 29 --€“ Tampa Bay Times Ticket Tandem; Raymond Rally Gnome

August 31 --€“ Matt Moore Kids Plate with Cup

LOOKING AHEAD

Sept. 2-4 -- Blue Jays at Rays

You can follow Andrew Astleford on Twitter @aastleford or email him at aastleford@gmail.com.