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07/22/09 11:02 PM ET

Bullpen falters in loss to White Sox

Shields solid, but lead disappears in rough seventh inning

CHICAGO -- After the Rays arrived at U.S. Cellular Field for the start of this four-game series against the White Sox on Monday, Rays shortstop Jason Bartlett soon found himself making small talk with White Sox catcher A.J. Pierzynski.

"The first day, A.J. was like, 'You know, we play some tough games against each other,'" Bartlett relayed.

No kidding.

For the third time in three games, clutch plays over the final innings decided a one-run affair between the two American League foes. For the second time in three games, the Rays wound up with the short end of the stick.

Tampa Bay clutched a potential victory tightly in its grasp with two outs in the bottom of the seventh inning, only to see it all unravel oh so quickly in a 4-3 defeat against Chicago on Wednesday night at U.S. Cellular Field.

"We definitely commanded that game, and we made a couple mistakes, and they got us," Rays manager Joe Maddon said. "That's what it came down to."

The White Sox's big inning began small -- with a two-out walk in the seventh issued by Rays starter James Shields to White Sox third baseman Gordon Beckham. At that point, the Rays held a 3-1 lead, Shields had thrown 111 pitches, and Maddon pulled him from the game in favor of reliever Randy Choate, part of a bullpen staff that had yet to allow an earned run in 13 2/3 innings since the All-Star break.

"Going through the Minor Leagues, you're stressed not to walk guys with two outs, especially late in the game," Shields lamented afterward. "It cost us tonight. They say the number of guys walking with two outs late in the game there, they're going to end up scoring."

With Choate in the game, speedy White Sox leadoff hitter Scott Podsednik reached first on an infield hit to short, and both Beckham and Podsednik moved up an extra base when an indecisive Bartlett threw the ball wide of first.

"I thought it was hit harder," Bartlett said. "I was going to stay on the bag and tag it, and then at the last second, I saw it wasn't coming to me, so I rushed it. I had to with Podsednik running."

Maddon then decided to go with reliever Chad Bradford to get out of the jam. But Bradford never made a pitch, as he left with lower back stiffness during his warmup tosses.

That brought in Rays reliever Dan Wheeler, who was stretched but had not been throwing in the bullpen.

After taking his injury warmup tosses, Wheeler faced Alexei Ramirez and appeared to strike him out on a 2-2 fastball that would have ended the inning. Instead, the pitch was ruled a ball. One pitch later, Ramirez lined a two-run triple to center over the head of center fielder B.J. Upton, who misjudged the flight of the ball, to tie the game at 3. Upton stepped in to try to make the catch before realizing too late that the ball was still carrying.

"Off the bat, I didn't really think he hit it that well," Upton said. "It kind of came out over Dan's shoulder and over the umpire, so I really didn't get a good look at it. I took a step in and still thought I had time to recover. I kind of spun out. The grass was a little damp, and it just beat me."

One batter later, Dye singled home Ramirez for the go-ahead run.

Dye, who plays right field, sympathized with Upton after the game.

"Any outfielder would have done that," Dye said. "The first step is always in when you see a batter reach out like that. The ball carried for him and he put the good part of the bat on it."

The Rays staked Shields to a 3-0 lead against White Sox starter Carlos Torres, making his Major League debut, thanks to a couple of home runs. In the top of the fourth, Pat Burrell lined a solo homer to left field, his sixth of the season, for a 1-0 Rays edge.

And in the sixth, right fielder Gabe Gross ripped a two-run home run into the right-field stands, his fifth of the season, to push the Rays in front, 3-0. Earlier in the inning, Ben Zobrist lined a single to right that fell in front of Dye. The base knock extended Zobrist's career-high hitting streak to 12 games.

Even when the Rays fell behind late, they mounted one last threat in the ninth off White Sox reliever Matt Thornton. Carl Crawford singled up the middle, moving catcher Dioner Navarro, who had singled leading off the inning, to third with two outs. But Rays third baseman Evan Longoria lofted an easy fly ball to Podsednik in center field to end the game.

The result spoiled yet another quality start from Shields, who lasted 6 2/3 innings, allowing two runs on four hits with four strikeouts. He now has tossed 13 quality starts in 21 outings this season, but his team is just 10-11 in games in which he pitches.

"Even when he walked Beckham to get to Podsednik, those were some good pitches that he made there," Maddon said of Shields. "He still had some pretty good stuff. I was still seeing 91 there on the gun. He did a heck of a job, no question."

Jesse Temple is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.