New month unkind to AL East boss
Instant replay history made as Rays' lead over Sox shrinks
ST. PETERSBURG -- August called. It wants its Rays back.
Coming off a surreal month in which Tampa Bay posted a franchise-best 21 wins with a smattering of records, Wednesday night's use of instant replay broke historic ground. Unfortunately, the call -- confirming Alex Rodriguez's two-run home run -- was indicative of an 8-4 series loss to the Yankees in which everything fell out of the Rays' favor.
Wednesday's loss -- coupled with Boston's 5-4 win over Baltimore -- shrunk Tampa Bay's margin atop the American League East to three games and snapped a streak of 13 series without a loss, the longest such streak in the Majors.
"We were just a step short on different occasions," manager Joe Maddon said.
Given the Rays dazzling display of defense this season, a step off was more like it.
Four times within the confines of two innings, the Yankees hit balls that Rays fielders couldn't play well, allowing hits to drop or runners to advance an extra base. None of the plays resulted in an error, but given the way Tampa Bay has played this year, not making the plays came off as glaring blunders.
The first of the plays occurred with two outs in the second when Rays left fielder Eric Hinske dove to try and catch Robinson Cano's looping line drive. Hinske had the ball in his glove for an instant before the ball popped out, allowing the Yankees' first run to score. Ivan Rodriguez followed with an RBI double to put New York up, 2-1.
With one out in the third, Bobby Abreu hit a ball to left field for what appeared to be a single, but he hustled safely into second base for a double. A similar hit occurred on the next play when Alex Rodriguez doubled home Abreu. On both occasions, it wasn't so much that an average play occurred, rather an above-average play did not.
And then there was third baseman Willy Aybar who turned two infield outs -- if Tampa Bay was fielding as expected -- into infield hits in the third and fourth innings. On Wednesday night, the Rays didn't play like the first-place AL East squad, the Yankees did.
"They put a lot of pressure on our defense on the infield," Maddon said. "They are running hard to first base; they are playing our game right now. They are beating us with our stick and bully for them."
Rays starter Edwin Jackson got the brunt of the Rays' less-than-inspiring fieldwork, tossing a season-low 3 1/3 innings and giving six runs on 10 hits.
Afterward, the right-hander said it was hard to "be mad" about the performance and the hard-luck bloops and bounces the Yanks turned in for scores.
"Too bad instant replay can't be used on infield hits," Jackson said.
But Wednesday night's performance didn't need any further review to reach a consensus -- the Rays were off.
After a run in the first inning, Gabe Gross connected on a two-out homer to right field to score Dioner Navarro and keep Tampa Bay within striking distance. It looked prime to do just that in the fifth inning, loading the bases courtesy of singles from B.J. Upton and Cliff Floyd and a walk by Carlos Pena. But Aybar hit a blistering liner to second, making an easy double play for Cano. Hinske hit a shallow fly to end the inning and squander the club's best shot to score all night.
And as the night progressed, the signs of frustration started to spill over. There was Aybar cracking his bat in anger following the line drive in the fifth inning. Or Pena two frames later throwing his helmet down in disbelief after center fielder Johnny Damon caught his ball at the warning track. Even Navarro got in on the action, whipping off his mask to debate Alex Rodriguez's two-run homer in the top of the ninth, to no avail.
"I'm sure there was frustration among the group there tonight, and I like it," Maddon said. "If we are able to temper it and understand it just indicates how much they care. And that's a good thing."
And with back-to-back losses for the first time in the same homestand since April 14-15, that's the only way the Rays chose to view the past two games.
"We've proven what we are," closer Troy Percival said. "For me to sit here and say this is a speed bump -- no way. I saw us lose seven in a row and come back after the [All-Star] break and just tear it up. When you lose two games to the Yankees what are you going to say? I mean they are a good team. Up to this point, we've been better. We've been better than everybody."
And although the Red Sox's comeback against the Orioles was playing in Tampa Bay's clubhouse prior to Wednesday's game, the Rays insist they aren't getting caught up in the numbers.
"We don't care about that right now," Pena said. "In fact, I think all of us here have learned and we understand how important it is for us to stay within ourselves and just keep our minds focused on what's going to benefit us.
"What's the alternative? The alternative is to sit here and look at the standings ... that is exhausting stuff right now."
Instead the Rays will head to Thursday's finale looking to regroup and regain the momentum that carried them before the calendar flip.
"Let's just keep it rolling," Pena said. "It's a mistake to magnify things, especially negative things. In fact, what we try to do is make [the loss] in our minds as miniscule as possible. So we can come back tomorrow and just play our game."
Brittany Ghiroli is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.