TORONTO — The Rays had done so much right in making their entertaining, exciting and endearing September run to make it a race for the final American League playoff spot.
But it was what they couldn't do Thursday night, get the final three outs of a game they led by six runs, that ultimately will have done them in.
The shocking 9-8 loss to the Blue Jays didn't officially eliminate the Rays, but it certainly was a staggering blow.
Combined with the second wild-card-holding A's earlier squeaking past the Angels 21-3, the Rays now find themselves 6½ games back with only 10 to play. Any combination of four Oakland wins or Rays losses ends it.
"This one definitely hurts,'' third baseman Matt Duffy said. "It's obviously disappointing. … This one definitely puts us in a difficult position. We're going to bounce back, we're going to do what we can. Mathematically, we're still in it, so we're going to keep going until this thing is over.''
Or, more succinctly, as centerfielder Mallex Smith said, "It sucks, period.''
Having rallied from an early 2-0 deficit, the Rays seemed to be rolling toward another win, having won five straight, 14 of 17 September games, and 23 of 28 to get at least into the conversation if not the actual competition.
But that all went awry, and their chances pretty much away, in an ugly ninth.
Rookie reliever Jaime Schultz made a big mess, allowing one run on back to back doubles, hitting the next batter. Then, after a strikeout, much bigger, giving up a three-run homer on a 1-2 pitch to Danny Jansen that made it 8-6.
Cash said Schultz's problem was being unable to finish off hitters, and noted that the home run came after a poor slider, that Schultz "chose to go back to that, and the guy was ready for it."
"It kind of unfolded pretty fast,'' Schultz said. "Especially when the team is rolling like this, it's tough to let these guys down, especially the way they performed today, go out there and put up a big lead. They expect you to do your job, and I couldn't come through.''
The rest of the bullpen, which had been ready to pack up, instead had to unexpectedly get warmed up.
Sergio Romo came on to get the second out, but a Kendry Morales blooper dropped in right-center between three Rays, though manager Kevin Cash said none could've caught it.
"Where we were positioned I don't think anybody was at fault,' Cash said. "Morales is hitting so you're playing deep regardless. He kind of put it in that Bermuda triangle out there. I think everybody went after it the right way, we just didn't get to it."
Smith, who moved to center when Cash took Kevin Kiermaier out so newcomer Austin Meadows could pinch-hit in the ninth and play an inning in the field, agreed.
"Perfectly placed," Smith said. "We were playing deeper just to protect the double, and he hit a pop-up right between us and the infield. It landed; can't do nothing about it."
That only put the tying run on first.
But Romo made things worse quickly.
He gave up a tying homer to Lourdes Gurriel on the first pitch. And on the next pitch, the game-ender to Justin Smoak, against whom the Rays earlier had broken out a four-man outfield alignment.
What went wrong?
"Ultimately he just hung a slider to Gurriel," Cash said. "He was ready for it. It's not that challenging to figure out what Sergio is going to try and do to get you with. And when he leaves it over the plate, the guys that are ready for it handle it. And he did today."
In the process, Romo allowed the Blue Jays to match the largest ninth-inning comeback in franchise history.
In a 2-0 hole after a rough open by Ryne Stanek and a meager offensive showing in which they saw 11 total pitches from Jays righty Sam Gaviglio in grounding out six times, the Rays rallied.
A leadoff single and stolen base in the fourth by Duffy and extra-base hits by Tommy Pham and Joey Wendle got them even. A pinch-hit single in the sixth by Willy Adames put them ahead. And a five-run rally in the seventh, keyed by Duffy, Pham and Wendle and highlighted by a bases-clearing C.J. Cron single, let them relax with seemingly safe 8-2 lead to continue their impressive run.
"Anytime you're up 8-2 and find a way to lose the game, that's tough regardless of how we were playing coming in, well or not," Cash said. "Anytime you're up, you expect that you've put yourself in a position that you're going to win the ballgame, finish it to get the 27th out with the lead. And we just didn't tonight."
Any loss at this point was going to be bad for the Rays, now 85-67. This one seemed traumatic, though Cash tried to temper that with an interesting perspective.
"In reality we're much farther than probably what people are wanting to recognize," he said. "We need a lot of things to go in our favor. Losses like this don't help."