Rays rally before falling to Twins
Zobrist drills pinch-hit home run in top of ninth inning
MINNEAPOLIS -- Ben Zobrist didn't exhibit a modicum of patience. Zobrist, summoned to pinch-hit in the ninth inning of Tuesday's game against the Twins with the Rays trailing by one run, was placed into one of baseball's most difficult situations: coming in cold against all-world closer Joe Nathan.
Zobrist blasted the first pitch he saw over the right-field baggie, tying the game and shocking those in attendance at the Metrodome into silence.
Tampa Bay, which was 2-4 in one-run games coming into the contest, was going to exorcise some demons while delivering an early-season statement to fellow contender Minnesota. Only it didn't turn out that way.
J.P. Howell loaded the bases in the ninth. With one out and Justin Morneau at the plate, Zobrist ran in from the outfield to form a five-man infield. Morneau blasted a Howell fastball at Tampa Bay second baseman Akinori Iwamura, who knocked it down. Iwamura retrieved the ball and threw it to Jason Bartlett for the force at second. Bartlett's throw to first was not quite in time to beat the lumbering Morneau, giving the Twins a 4-3 win over the Rays.
"We had it set up," Rays manager Joe Maddon said of the five-man infield. "That's something we work on. He hit it really hard; that's not an easy play for Aki by any means. It just bounced far enough away from him that it permitted Morneau to beat it out."
Morneau beating out the relay sent a jolt through the Metrodome and sent the Twins into a celebratory frenzy. The Rays were left with questions and thoughts, some of which bordered on the philosophical.
"This is how you build character," Howell said. "You come out again tomorrow and you show that it doesn't affect you -- that's also a statement. This can be an opportunity for us, especially me, to show why we are who we are."
Maddon said he liked the aggression of Zobrist, who was not shy in a big situation.
Said Zobrist: "In any pinch-hitting situation, especially with a great reliever like [Nathan], I'm just looking to be aggressive there, because I know if you get behind with a guy like that, it's tough."
The Rays spent a good portion of the evening playing catchup. Tampa Bay starter James Shields got into trouble early. He walked Denard Span to open the game. Two batters later, Morneau deposited a Shields changeup over the left-center-field wall.
The Rays battled back in the sixth off Twins starter Francisco Liriano. B.J. Upton led off the inning with a walk and then stole second and third base. Evan Longoria knocked him in with a double. Longoria scored two batters later on a Willy Aybar sacrifice fly to right field.
In the bottom half of the inning, Shields loaded the bases courtesy of an Alexi Casilla double and two walks, one of which was an intentional free pass to Jason Kubel. With two outs, Shields plunked Brian Buscher in the shoulder, bringing home Casilla and giving Minnesota a 3-2 lead.
"You can pretty much put that game on me," Shields said. "You can't give the bases loaded and hit a guy to bring a run in. That doesn't happen. I don't think it's ever going to happen again with me. I think I let my teammates down, as far as that goes. That was a tough loss. I feel like if I bear down and actually execute my pitch right there, we win that ballgame."
"The walk, and then the hit batter, it's something you don't expect from him," Maddon said. "Basically, in a lot of these close games we've had little items like that go against us. We just have to get beyond that. We've lost a lot of one-run games and close games because of that."
Shields went 6 2/3 innings, giving up three earned runs on seven hits and four walks.
The Rays lost a potentially crucial run in the fifth when Aybar was thrown out at home by Nick Punto on a fielder's choice off the bat of Dioner Navarro. Aybar had led off the inning with a double and moved up on a Gabe Kapler groundout.
"That was just a bad break," Maddon said. "We did the first thing well -- we moved him over. And then we did the next thing well, get a ground ball to score him on an out, and then we just did not complete the base-running side of things."
All of which means the Rays fall to 2-5 in one-run games and 8-13 overall this season. They will spend a lonely night in Minneapolis trying to regroup before trying to break a streak of five straight series losses during the rubber game on Wednesday.
"Maybe the difference between this year and last year, we are not winning in those close games," Iwamura said. "We have to accept that. But we are going to stay positive and we will stay patient and see what happens."
Thor Nystrom is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.