A year ago, the Rays won games like this. Tuesday night, they followed a season-long pattern of not being able to get enough offense or make the clinching play, and they fell 4-3 to Twins.
Justin Morneau's one-out bases-loaded fielder's choice in the bottom of the ninth inning off J.P. Howell provided the winning run, putting the Rays in jeopardy of losing a sixth consecutive series.
The Rays (8-13) haven't won a series since their opening trip to Boston. They'll still have a chance to get this one in a rubber match tonight before returning home Thursday to face the red-hot Red Sox.
"We've lost several like this now," manager Joe Maddon said. 'We're just talking about the small mistakes that occurred. ... So we just have to keep fighting through it. It's a long season, and these things have a tendency to balance out a bit."
Ben Zobrist had tied the game at 3 in the top of the ninth with a solo pinch-hit home run off closer Joe Nathan (1-0). The Rays had a chance to get the go-ahead run, but Carl Crawford grounded out after Akinori Iwamura and B.J. Upton reached base with two outs.
With the bases loaded and one out against Howell (0-2), Morneau hit a hard grounder and potential double-play ball to second baseman Iwamura. He knocked it down before throwing to shortstop Jason Bartlett for one out, but a hustling Morneau beat the throw to first as Jose Morales scored the winning run.
"I did everything I could do," Iwamura said through his interpreter.
Zobrist, who had come in from right field to play a fifth infielder position, said Iwamura "kept it there with his body just as much as he could." Howell called the grounder a "laser" and said it would have been a tough play to make.
But after their 10th loss in 14 games, the Rays could point to a couple of mistakes: a base-running gaffe by Willy Aybar in the fifth and starting pitcher James Shields hitting a batter with the bases loaded in the sixth, putting Minnesota ahead 3-2.
"I'm pretty much putting that game on me," Shields said after a mostly respectable outing in which he allowed three runs on seven hits in 6 2/3 innings. "You can't get the bases loaded and hit a guy to bring a run in. That doesn't happen. I don't think that's ever going to happen again with me."
Aybar, the designated hitter because Pat Burrell came up with a stiff neck before the game, opened the fifth with a double. He advanced on a Gabe Kapler ground out and was thrown out trying to come home on Dioner Navarro's grounder to shortstop Nick Punto. That was the second out, and it was followed by a single by Bartlett.
Maddon said Aybar could have scored on the play if he hadn't hesitated.
"That's a play he should go on," he said. "For whatever reason, he broke back to the bag a little bit and then he took off."
Shields, who was beat 1-0 in his previous start after allowing a lead-off home run to Seattle's Ichiro Suzuki, walked the first batter he faced and then gave up a two-run home run to Morneau. The Rays' Opening Day starter didn't allow another run until his mistake in the sixth.
With the bases loaded after a double by Alexi Casilla, an intentional walk to Jason Kubel and a walk by Michael Cuddyer, Shields hit Brian Buscher with a pitch he was trying to jam inside.
"It was a cutter in, 0-1 in the count," Shields said. "I was trying to do a cutter in, and I yanked it. That's a situation where no matter how good you pitch in the game, you've got to bear down and get that out."
The Rays were 0-2 with an 0.57 ERA lifetime against Twins lefty Francisco Liriano, who had started the season 0-4 with a 7.06 ERA. They managed only one hit against him through the first four innings, but starting to get to him in the fifth and scored two to tie the game in the top of the sixth.
Evan Longoria, who has hit safely in 16 of his 19 games, drove in a run with his 10th double. Carlos Pena followed with a single for a club record 25th RBI in April.
Zobrist's pinch-hit home run handed Nathan his first blown save of the season and was his second pinch-hit homer of the year and was his third game-tying or go-ahead RBI.
"I was just looking to be aggressive, because I know if you get behind [in the count] with a guy like that, it's going to be tough."
Zobrist said the Rays should be able to find a positive in knowing the game easily could have turned the other way.
"There have been some games where we weren't one or two plays away," he said. "But today we were, which is good. I think we're getting closer to the point where, once we pull a game or two of these out, it's going to feel the exact same way [as last year], and I think our confidence can go up so fast. This team will start believing very quickly."