ST. PETERSBURG - The defense was properly aligned. The pitch was in the right location. The ball was simply "well-struck," as Rays manager Joe Maddon likes to say.
Instead of an inning-ending flyout, it was a two-strike, two-out, three-run double that cleared the bases, turning potential victory into deflating defeat.
Minnesota Twins left fielder Josh Willingham, a free-agent who was pursued by the Rays last December, delivered the blow Friday night in a 5-4 victory against the Rays before 18,763 fans at Tropicana Field.
Rays reliever Joel Peralta was one pitch away from a clean getaway in the seventh inning as he tried to protect a 4-2 advantage with the bases loaded. But Willingham drove a 1-2 elevated fastball deep into the right-field gap, twisting away from onrushing center fielder B.J. Upton.
"It was struck well enough to land in the right spot," Maddon said. "It could've easily been a fly ball to center field or right. It was fortuitous for them and not for us."
"Off the bat, I actually thought I had a bead on it," said Upton, making his first appearance of the season after being activated from the 15-day disabled list. "But the closer I got to it, it wasn't hit true. He somehow hit a ball the other way that was top-spinning. … It was closer than you probably think it was, but at that point, I can't dive for it."
The Rays, who had erased a 2-0 deficit, largely due to home runs from Matt Joyce and Evan Longoria, were punchless in the final three innings. Against three Twins relievers, they managed only one base runner, a two-out walk to Ben Zobrist in the eighth.
Rookie left-hander Matt Moore, who made his first home start, is still looking for his first victory of 2012.
Moore went 6 1/3 innings and was in position for the win. Maddon went to the bullpen after Moore's 106th pitch, a one-out single by Alex Casilla in the seventh.
First, it was Brandon Gomes, who surrendered a single to Twins center fielder Denard Span of Tampa, then a walk to Jamey Carroll. Peralta was summoned – and he looked strong. He coaxed Joe Mauer into a harmless flyout to left.
But Peralta couldn't close out Willingham.
Moore accepted his share of the blame.
Mauer, the leading active MLB batter at Tropicana Field (.443, 31-for-70), provided Minnesota's 2-0 lead with RBI singles in the first and fifth innings. It could've been worse as Moore faced constant trouble, but he benefitted from three consecutive inning-ending double-play grounders.
"Obviously, the results aren't what we want," Moore said. "I feel like my head and my body are ready. It was a battle, but I had some good defense behind me. It's just a couple of things, one little tweak here and there, and we could be there next time."
Maddon said he thought Moore "gave us a chance to win," but wasn't consistently effective in attacking the strike zone.
The Rays' offense, while effective in taking the lead with a three-run sixth inning, was generally spotty.
"There's always going to be fight within our group," Maddon said. "I thought we battled through it well and came back.
"Willingham's ball was just really, really well-placed. Sometimes, you're going to get smashed like that every once in a while. In spite of all our efforts to be where we needed to be, he just got us right there."
Willingham has hit safely in each of Minnesota's 14 games this season.
"He's fun to watch," Twins manager Ron Gardenhire said. "The reason we went after him was to drive in some runs and hit the ball in the seats. Up to this point, he has done pretty much exactly what we were hoping he could do for this offense."
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