ST. PETERSBURG -- Don't sack the bats too early on the Rays -- they die hard.

For all intents and purposes, the Marlins had the Rays at hello as they built a 6-0 lead after just three innings and a 9-0 lead after four turns at bat. But rather than call it a night, Tampa Bay fought all the way to the last out before coming up short, 14-9, on Friday night before 19,338 at Tropicana Field in the opener of a weekend series.

  • 134 wins
  • 118 wins

By losing, the Rays took their second defeat in as many days. And though they maintained the best record in baseball at 39-22, they saw their lead in the American League East dwindle to one game over the Yankees.

James Shields started for the Rays and said he felt good while warming up. And everything might have turned out differently for the right-hander if not for just a couple of moments.

Chris Coghlan led off the game with a sinking liner that B.J. Upton dove for in center field, but he could not hang onto the ball when he hit the turf. Later in the inning, Coghlan scored on Hanley Ramirez's sacrifice fly to put the Marlins up, 1-0.

Shields orchestrated his own downfall in the third, but the difference between dodging a bullet and getting blasted proved so minute that when viewed from the rearview mirror, it almost seemed cruel.

Shields walked the first two batters he faced in the third before being unable to make a play on Gaby Sanchez's bunt to load the bases. He recovered to strike out Ramirez, then retired Jorge Cantu on a flyout to right that saw Ben Zobrist's throw to the plate prevent Ronny Paulino from tagging and scoring.

Shields kept his composure and went to a 2-2 count with Dan Uggla before walking him to force home the Marlins' second run.

"I've got to minimize my damage right there, there's no doubt about it," Shields said. "I got myself in a bases-loaded jam right there and I didn't really get the job done. I got two outs, bases loaded and 2-2 count. I've got to bear down."

Then the floodgates opened. Cody Ross followed with a two-run single and Mike Stanton's triple scored two more to put Florida up, 6-0.

"You've got bases loaded, nobody out, you get two outs and then all of a sudden, it just flooded, it did open up," manager Joe Maddon said. "That was one of the mantras through all of Spring Training was the fine line, the razor-thin line between winning and losing. You look at that game, God it was awful, and it came down to a pitch or two early that really could have set a different tone."

Florida continued to pour it on in the fourth when Sanchez hit a three-run homer to push the lead to 10-0 and chase Shields. On the night, Shields allowed 10 earned runs in 3 1/3 innings, matching the worst start of his career on July 22, 2007, at Yankee Stadium in a 21-4 Rays loss; technically the shortest start of his career came on June 5, 2008, against the Red Sox in Boston, when he was ejected in the second inning.

"It's probably the worst outing of my career," Shields said.

Shields has lost four consecutive starts, matching his career high (June 15-July 1, 2007), making him the first Rays starter to lose four straight since J.P. Howell lost five in a row from June 30-Sept. 26, 2007.

"I've got to do something," Shields said. "It's unacceptable the way I'm pitching right now. I'm letting my team down and not giving them a chance to win."

Sanchez had a lot to do with Florida building a 14-3 lead after 6 1/2 innings as he had two homers and six RBIs. But even while facing such a large deficit, the Rays' offense continued to fight while the Marlins' defense and pitching began to get sloppier as the game progressed.

The Rays scored one in the seventh, four in the eighth and one in the ninth before Gabe Kapler struck out to end the game after three hours and 15 minutes had passed.

Included in the Rays' offensive effort were 3-for-5 efforts by Carlos Pena and Hank Blalock -- each of whom had bunt singles, Pena's coming after hitting a home run in his fifth consecutive game. The never-say-die attitude pleased Maddon and helped the team's cause by forcing the Marlins to use four pitchers -- and they actually had their closer, Leo Nunez, warming up at the end of the game.

"To really battle these guys to the point where you got all these guys up that they did not want to get up is very important going into [Saturday's] game," Maddon said. "That's the beauty of coming back like that. Even though you lose the game, it can have a positive effect on tomorrow's game and the next day."

Florida manager Fredi Gonzalez acknowledged the effect of Tampa Bay's effort.

"[That's] a very good club over there, and if you give them opportunities, you're going to have to do what we did to beat them," Gonzalez said. "You're going to have to get your closer up, you're going to have to get your eighth-inning guy up."