BALTIMORE — It was all coming together for the Tampa Bay Rays in the ninth inning Wednesday.
They had the matchups they wanted against the Baltimore Orioles pitchers. They had runners on base, including the tying run on first in the form of Kelly Johnson.
Jose Lobaton, Mr. Late-Game Magic, was at the plate with two outs.
Then Johnson broke for second base, and in one fluid move by Orioles shortstop J.J. Hardy, who caught the throw from catcher Matt Wieters on a bounce and tagged Johnson, the game was over.
The Rays lost 4-2.
“They made a good enough throw and a good pick and tag,” Johnson said. “Unfortunately, it looks worse than what I thought the odds would be.”
The loss knocked the Rays out of first place. They began the day percentage points ahead of the Red Sox, but Boston hammered the Giants in San Francisco in the afternoon and the Rays lost for only the second time in eight games in the evening.
Still, they took two of three from the Orioles.
“When we came up here, we would have signed up for that all day,” Rays manager Joe Maddon said. “But once you win the first two, you get greedy.”
It was another short outing for Jeremy Hellickson, who failed to go five innings for the fourth time in his past five starts.
He allowed four runs on seven hits in 4 1/3 innings. Two of those hits were long home runs — a solo shot by Adam Jones in the third inning that easily cleared the wall in straightaway center field and traveled 451 feet, and a blast by Chris Davis in the fifth that landed on Eutaw Street beyond the right-field wall.
Maddon said he asked Hellickson after the outing if his arm was fine, and Hellickson said it was.
When asked that question after the game, Hellickson said, “I'm fine. Just struggling.”
Hellickson is struggling with his fastball, both the velocity and command of the pitch. As a result, his other pitches are less effective.
“I just think the ball out of the hand is not the same right now,” Maddon said. “Normally when you see a pitcher pitch, you can see the ball jump out of his hand, you can see the life in it. (Wednesday) was definitely not that for him.”
And yet the Rays were never out of the game.
Jason Bourgeois and Sean Rodriguez, who Maddon started over Matt Joyce and James Loney to stack the lineup with right-handers against Wei-Yin Chen, homered off the Orioles lefty.
Cesar Ramos and Alex Torres kept the Orioles offense in check after Hellickson left.
The Rays trailed by two runs heading into the ninth.
That's when it got really interesting.
Wil Myers fouled off pitch after pitch until he singled off righty Darren O'Day to start the inning. Maddon sent up Loney, and Orioles manager Buck Showalter countered with left-hander Brian Matusz.
Loney worked a walk after an 11-pitch at-bat.
With two on and no outs, Showalter called for righty Tommy Hunter to face Rodriguez. Maddon countered with Joyce.
“(Loney's walk) puts us in a position right there to get Matt in a situation that we absolutely wanted him to be in,” Maddon said. “Their pitcher, give him credit, he did a nice job.”
Joyce flied out to right field, and Myers advanced to second.
Maddon sent Johnson up to hit for Bourgeois, and Johnson bounced into a force play that erased Loney at second base.
Lobaton, who had a pair of walk-off hits over the weekend, was up with two outs.
Johnson, knowing Hunter is slow to the plate, decided himself to get into scoring position.
Johnson, who has seven stolen bases this season in 13 attempts, said he wouldn't have gone had he not felt he could steal the base.
“I thought all the odds were in my favor there,” he said. “Unfortunately, it was a situation where the ball took Hardy into me, and he made a good clean pick and the tag all at the same time. Loby swung through it. There were all these factors that were in my favor. Still, I would have bet the house I could steal that even with a good throw.”
Maddon said he wasn't opposed to Johnson running, even if he ran into the last out.
When asked if he preferred Johnson had not tried to steal, Maddon said, “No. I prefer he'd been safe.”