Rays fall to Angels in finale
Bullpen falters after offense knots game in eighth
ST. PETERSBURG -- Being in the hunt this time of year makes all the difference.
"Everything becomes magnified, man. It's great, it's really cool," Rays manager Joe Maddon said. "Everything becomes more magnified. Decisions are second-guessed more often when they don't work. They'll be praised when they work."
Wednesday night a slim margin separated the Rays from victory and defeat. Unfortunately for Tampa Bay fans, those margins went the other way in a 5-4 Angels win in front of a crowd of 19,157 at Tropicana Field.
In defeat, the Rays fell to 77-49 on the season but they still managed to maintain their 4 1/2-game cushion over the second-place Red Sox, who lost to the Orioles.
The Rays took the field in the top of the ninth having just mounted a successful comeback in the eighth to tie the score at 4. Hard-throwing Grant Balfour had retired the Angels in order in the eighth -- all via strikeouts -- when he again took the mound hoping to transfer his right-arm magic to the final inning. But he walked the leadoff hitter, Chone Figgins, starting a chain of events that ultimately led to the Rays' defeat.
Erick Aybar tried to sacrifice Figgins to second, but he popped up the bunt to his brother, Rays third baseman Willy Aybar, for the first out. Mark Teixeira then singled to left on a ball that left fielder Justin Ruggiano appeared to lose in the lights.
Ruggiano, who had just entered the game as a defensive replacement in the top of the ninth, explained afterward that he hadn't actually lost sight of the ball.
"I saw it fine off the bat," Ruggiano said. "I just figured at that time and point of the game, a diving catch would have been a great play. But it would have been a lot worse if I would have let the ball scoot by me and that winning run that was on first base scores. So I wanted to keep the double play in order, and keep us in there and give us a chance.
"Probably did look like I had an easy catch on that ball. But it was Teixeira, and I was playing a little deeper maybe than I should have been, and I tried to deke Figgins from going to third base."
Ruggiano calculated the odds and opted to exercise caution on the play.
"I'm the only one out there," Ruggiano said. "There's nobody else close to me. ... Looking back at it, I still think it was the right decision, to keep the double play in order and give us a chance."
Second-guess Ruggiano's decision if you want, but in reality, Ruggiano's play did in fact give the Rays a chance.
With runners at first and second and one out, the Angels executed a double steal that prompted Maddon to pay a visit to third-base umpire Bill Miller. Earlier in the game, replays validated that the men in blue had missed a call at first base that went against the Rays. This time, they appeared to get the call right as Figgins slid under the tag even though the throw beat him to the bag, but Maddon -- who had gotten ejected for arguing the night before -- figured he should state his case just the same. After doing so, he quietly returned to the dugout and ordered an intentional walk to Vladimir Guerrero that loaded the bases.
Torii Hunter grounded to Aybar at third, who threw home for the forceout on Figgins. When Garret Anderson followed with a grounder up the middle, the Rays appeared to be home free.
Sure-handed second baseman Akinori Iwamura was able to knock down the ball with a backhanded play, but he could not come up with it cleanly, allowing the winning run to score on the infield hit.
"Garret just beat us to the center-field side. If we had played him over there, he probably would have pulled it in the hole," Maddon said. "It's just one of those things. You take a chance on your best thoughts and information, and it didn't work out.
"I thought there was a chance. Aki was kind of on an angle and he kind of had to leave his feet. I don't know if he could have made a throw, even if he kept his feet. I'm not sure."
The Rays could not mount another comeback in the bottom of the ninth, thereby dashing their hopes for a ninth sweep of the season and a second against the Angels.
"You're going to lose some difficult games," Maddon said. "As a manager, I appreciate the effort. You're going to lose some tough ones, and what matters is how you bounce back from that."
Bill Chastain is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.