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09/18/08 11:45 PM ET

Rays unable to protect late lead

Twins' five-run ninth off Wheeler, bullpen erases five homers

ST. PETERSBURG -- All season long, the back end of the Rays' bullpen has been a place where opposing rallies have gone to die.

Entering Thursday night's game, the Rays had a record of 77-1 when taking a lead into the ninth inning. So not only was the Twins' 11-8 come-from-behind win heartbreaking for the Rays, it also was surprising.

A Tropicana Field crowd of 17,296 watched with jaws dropped as an 8-6 Rays lead evaporated in the haze of a five-run Twins ninth.

"Everything worked for them in the last inning," Rays manager Joe Maddon said. "Nobody's perfect."

In defeat, Tampa Bay moved to 90-61 on the season, meaning the club can still clinch a playoff spot over the weekend by winning two of its final three games against Minnesota. The Rays can also clinch Friday night if they beat the Twins and the White Sox, Yankees and Blue Jays all lose.

With the Red Sox being idle Thursday, the Rays saw their lead in the American League East dwindle to 1 1/2 games while their magic number to win the division remained at 10 games. That means any combination of Rays wins and Red Sox losses totaling 10 will make the Rays the AL East champions. The Rays also have a head-to-head tiebreaker against the Red Sox in their back pocket, since they won the season series, 10-8.

Evan Longoria slugged three home runs to propel the Rays to an 8-6 lead heading into the ninth inning, and all appeared well when Maddon handed the ball to Dan Wheeler to try to keep it that way.

"We had a nice situation," Maddon said. "I felt really good about Danny coming in there."

Nobody bothered to utter "game over" in the Twins' dugout, and a bad moon seemed to be rising from the outset when Denard Span singled to lead off the inning.

"Felt like I made some pretty good pitches to Span," Wheeler said. "I guess you could say a little bad luck, a jam shot over [Longoria's head at third base], just out of his reach."

Alexi Casilla, the second hitter in the Twins' order, followed and delivered a clutch two-run homer over the right-field wall to tie the score at 8.

"First-pitch fastball right there," Wheeler said. "Probably couldn't have put it in a better spot for him. I felt good. I felt good in the 'pen and everything."

Joe Mauer then doubled to center field before Maddon had Wheeler walk dangerous Justin Morneau before giving way to Trever Miller. Adam Everett greeted Miller with a fake bunt RBI double to put the Twins up, 9-8.

Former Rays outfielder Delmon Young added an RBI single and Matt Tolbert a sacrifice fly to put the Twins up, 11-8.

"I guess just chalk it up to a bad outing," Wheeler said. "I still like our position. You know it's just a difficult one to swallow, that's all you can say.

"You have to [put this one behind you]. You can't dwell on this stuff. That's part of being in the bullpen. You have a short memory. I hope I get the ball again tomorrow and see what happens."

James Shields started for the Rays and appeared to have his career-high 14th win locked up despite allowing six runs in 6 1/3 innings, including a three-run homer to Jason Kubel in the first.

"I didn't have my good stuff today," Shields said. "But I battled through it. I got to the seventh inning."

Had the ninth-inning collapse not occurred, Shields would have tied Rolando Arrojo's single-season franchise record for wins set in 1998. But rather than fault the bullpen, Shields saluted the Twins.

"That's a good ballclub," Shields said. "We've lost to them the last couple of games. They're a scrappy club. ... They're just a better team than us today. ...

"One through nine, they play the game the right way. They take pitches. They draw their walks and they look for their pitch. You make a mistake to these guys and they're going to hit it."

With the AL Central-leading White Sox losing to the Yankees, the Twins pulled to within 1 1/2 games of Chicago. Minnesota also picked up a half-game on Boston in the Wild Card at 6 1/2 games.

"They still have a lot to play for, as we do, too," Wheeler said. "They've had some tough games lost during [their recently completed] Cleveland series. With a lineup like [the Twins have], you have to be aggressive. They've got some great hitters. It was just a bad day."

Bill Chastain is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.