Rays denied a season-opening sweep
Niemann forced to exit after taking a comebacker to shoulder
ST. PETERSBURG -- Once again, the magic seemed to be percolating inside Tropicana Field.
The home nine trailed by one run with two outs and nobody on base on Thursday night, but inch by inch they clawed until they had loaded the bases against Mike Gonzalez. Two nights earlier, the Orioles' closer gave up the winning hit to Carl Crawford, and the Rays appeared to once again have him in their crosshairs.
But the threat ended when Ben Zobrist flew out to right and the Rays took a 5-4 loss, their first of the season, with 16,191 watching.
"We had everything set up the way we wanted it with Zobrist up," Crawford said. "You couldn't ask for a better situation. We just fell a little short today.
"We're playing hard. Everybody's playing hard doing the little things to win games, doing whatever it takes to win games. That's a positive sign, so hopefully we can continue to do that. The game went down to the end."
The Rays were forced to come back after allowing the Orioles to score four runs in the sixth inning.
Mike Ekstrom started that frame for the Rays after successfully putting out a fire in the fifth, but his effectiveness did not carry over, finding trouble after Nick Markakis singled to open the inning. The right-hander then hit Miguel Tejada and walked Luke Scott, which brought a call to Grant Balfour, but the hard-throwing Aussie could not escape the bases-loaded jam.
Matt Wieters singled home one run, another scored on a Balfour wild pitch and Garrett Atkins singled home two more to put the Orioles up, 5-2.
"The big play, probably of the game, was when we hit Tejada with two strikes," manager Joe Maddon said. "That kind of messed up all the pitching strategy I had going at that point.
"The hit-by-pitch by Tejada, and the next guy walks, then here comes Wieters. I just didn't like it. and I was looking for Grant. Sometimes he can go in there and get a punchout, sometimes gets a popup."
Ekstrom took the loss, but Maddon stood by his reliever, who was the last player chosen for the 25-man roster this spring.
"I do like Ekstrom's stuff," Maddon said. "His line reads badly tonight, but he has good stuff, and he's going to be very productive for us."
Jeff Niemann started for the Rays and cruised through the first inning before Tejada, leading off the second, hit a hot shot off the back of the 6-foot-9 right-hander's right shoulder. The ball ricocheted to Carlos Pena at first for an unusual 1-3 putout, then Niemann was pulled from the game and replaced by Andy Sonnanstine.
After Sonnanstine recorded the final two outs in the second, he surrendered a solo home run to Nolan Reimold, who led off the third. He pitched into the fifth when Ekstrom took over with two outs and runners on the corners and came through by striking out Adam Jones to end the inning.
Pat Burrell drew a walk from Brian Matusz to lead off the third, then the Orioles lefty walked Gabe Kapler and Kelly Shoppach to load the bases with no outs. Jason Bartlett singled home Burrell, and Crawford's sacrifice fly drove home Kapler to put the Rays up, 2-1.
Dioner Navarro's fielder's choice plated Burrell in the seventh to cut the Orioles' lead to two runs, and Evan Longoria added an RBI single in the eighth to make it 5-4.
"I'm so happy with the way we're playing," Maddon said. "We're involved, we're focused, we're playing hard. What else can you ask for? It was unfortunate, because Niemann really had good stuff tonight. And that was the unfortunate part about the evening."
Bill Chastain is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.