ST. PETERSBURG – The situation called for a ground ball pitcher, so Tampa Bay Rays manager Joe Maddon turned to the one pitcher left in his bullpen who could get a ground ball. That would be Roberto Hernandez.
It was the 10th inning Wednesday, and the Boston Red Sox had runners on first and second thanks to a walk to Dustin Pedroia by Joel Peralta, a sacrifice bunt and an intentional walk to David Ortiz.
Maddon sensed Peralta didn't have his best stuff. Besides, Peralta is more of a fly ball pitcher. So Maddon turned to Hernandez and that was the ball game.
A four-pitch walk and a grand slam by pinch-hitter Mike Carp on the first pitch of his at-bat ruined the Rays comeback and sent Tampa Bay to a 7-3 defeat.
The Rays are now a major league-worst 4-13 since Aug. 24, when they led the Red Sox by percentage points atop the American League East standings.
Now they cling to the last Wild Card spot. What's more, the Yankees moved to within one game of the Rays. The Orioles and Indians remain 1 ½ back. The Royals are just two back.
“You look at a game like this and it's easy to second guess, whatever, but the truth of the matters is we have to do a better job of scoring runs when we have opportunities,” Maddon said.
It's been a common theme of late.
The Rays were 1-for-10 with runners in scoring position. They are hitting .216 with runners in scoring position since July 31.
Twice they left the bases loaded. They are now hitless in their last 12 at-bats with the bases full.
They continued their nearly nightly run of a double-play per game, hitting into a major league-high 40 in their last 32 games, including at least one in 19 of their last 21 games.
“You can slice and dice it, we had chances to score way more than three runs and didn't do it,” Maddon said. “That's it, that and a couple of walks in the 10th inning was our downfall.”
The Rays trailed 3-0 in the top of the third inning when the Red Sox scored three times off Alex Cobb.
The first two runs scored when Wil Myers tried to make a shoestring catch on a sinking line drive by Mike Napoli with the bases loaded, only to have the ball short-hop his glove and bounce to his left.
“It's a tough play,” Maddon said.
But it's one that has summed up the Rays luck or lack there of during the slide. Dropped fly balls. Wild pitches. Walks. Stolen bases. Everything has worked against the Rays.
“It's been really awkward watching these inches go against us,” Maddon said. “We're not winning the battle of inches, and we have to do that over these last couple of weeks.”
Still, the Rays came back.
They got a run in the bottom of the third on back-to-back doubles by Yunel Escobar and David DeJesus. But they failed to add more when they left the bases loaded.
A two-out double by Evan Longoria scored Ben Zobrist from first base in the seventh inning to make it a one-run game.
James Loney homered in the eighth to tie the score at 3-3.
The game went into the 10th inning, and Maddon called for Peralta.
Peralta walked Pedroia for the first of the two walks that would haunt the Rays. The other was Hernandez's four-pitch walk to Napoli to load the bases.
Maddon said he made the change because he felt Peralta was getting tired and because Peralta is a fly ball pitcher.
“Maybe a little bit,” Peralta said of being tired. “Maybe that's why I'm walking a lot of guys lately, but it's not an excuse. I've got to go in and throw strikes and challenge guys. I haven't been able to do that lately, so it's on me.”
Maddon said their numbers predicted a 60 percent chance Napoli would hit the ball on the ground against Hernandez, and the Rays could turn the inning-ending double play.
“I'm not going to complain or anything about the decision that they made,” Peralta said. “Ortiz is a tough hitter and they thought that Hernandez was better facing Napoli, and I agree. It wasn't my best day, so I'm OK with it.”
But Hernandez walked Napoli on four pitches.
Carp, pinch-hitting for Jonny Gomes, unloaded on the first pitch, sending it over the wall in center field and sending many of the 19,215 in attendance heading for the exits.
Hernandez declined to talk to reporters after the game.
Maddon spoke before the game about the Rays need to bounce back, to stop the free fall. He talked of catching the Red Sox for the division lead. He talked of hits with runners in scoring position.
He's done that often over the last couple of weeks.
Frustrating for sure. It has to test even Maddon's rose-colored optimism.
“It's all about the process, trying to do the right thing,” Maddon said. “People can dispute whatever they want, the situation right there (in the 10th). For me the right guy is the guy who's going to put the ball on the ground. If you're guy is on top of his game than you just play through it. I just thought Roberto was right for that moment.
“As for frustrating, if you stay with the process and continue to do what you think are the right things, you come back tomorrow and play.”