Rays drop first home series since April
Kazmir fans seven in 5 2/3 innings, but haunted by one bad pitch
ST. PETERSBURG -- In critiquing Saturday night's walk-off win, Rays manager Joe Maddon expressed concern over the club's flailing offense, noting that it added pressure to the pitching and defense by magnifying every mistake.
Sunday's rubber match saw Scott Kazmir under that exact microscope.
Forget about the ace's seven strikeouts -- including five of Houston's first eight batters -- or the four hits in 5 2/3 innings.
One pitch to the always-dangerous Carlos Lee, and Kazmir and the Rays found themselves on the wrong end of Sunday afternoon's 3-2 series finale, as Houston's designated hitter notched a two-run, two-out blast in the sixth inning.
"He was throwing invisible fastballs," Lee said. "Everybody was late, everybody was missing them. It's funny the way it works. I got to two strikes and all I was trying to do was make contact. I guess that's what you have to do against guys like that."
Kazmir, the reigning American League strikeout king, tossed four scoreless innings before Hunter Pence led off the fifth with a solo home run. Lee's two-run knock was all the insurance the Astros needed, as the Rays dropped a home series for the first time since a loss on April 20 to the White Sox.
Snapping a nine-series win streak at home, Sunday afternoon's one-run loss left much to be desired.
"Very difficult," Maddon said. "We absolutely pitched well enough to win, we just could not get any offense going. We had opportunities and they kept putting us down. We have to continue to win games like today."
Coming off an electrifying series sweep of the first-place Cubs, the entire weekend set against Houston seemed lackluster at best, as the Rays dropped two of three games to an Astros squad that had lost their eight previous contests.
"Nothing to hang our heads about, but of course there is [a let-down]," Cliff Floyd said. "We should be frustrated. We should be ticked off, we feel we are a good team. And when you have a good team you expect to win every time you step on the field, especially at home."
That line of thinking has boded well for the Rays this season, as the club capped off a nine-game Interleague homestand with a 6-3 record and two series wins.
But the bar has been set higher for Tampa Bay this season, a fact evident by the hung heads and looks of disappointment in the clubhouse following Sunday's game.
"That's the beauty of the whole thing. We had a very successful homestand, but we are very disappointed at the same time," Maddon said. "I like that. We do expect to win every series, we do expect to win every day and when you don't, it bothers us a lot."
Just a night removed from an emotional walk-off win, the Rays had several opportunities to squeak out a "W" on Sunday.
On the board with a two-run shot from rookie Evan Longoria in the second inning, the Rays were unable to plate Dioner Navarro from second base on a right-field single from Gabe Gross in the fourth inning.
Speedy Carl Crawford also made a rare out trying to steal third base, but Maddon said the Rays' aggressive approach and green-light to their runners on the basepaths was not a concern.
What did have Maddon befuddled was finding a concrete solution to the Rays' offensive struggles.
Only twice during the nine-game homestand did the Rays score more than five runs, with both of their losses to Houston coming by a single run.
Part of the credit goes to Houston.
"They're way better than their record," Floyd said. "Their pitching pitched way better than their record shows."
Added Navarro: "They can hit the ball out of the ballpark, and that's what they did today. They are a good team."
But surely the offense must shoulder some of the series loss, as the Rays have already shown an overreliance on their pitching and defense.
"We know [Kazmir's] going to give us a chance to win," Longoria said. "It's a good thing to see emotion, good to see pain in the loss. It makes us come out [Tuesday] more hungry for a win."
Brittany Ghiroli is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.