ST. PETERSBURG — The Rays' planned march back to the postseason is taking place on a narrow path. Principal owner Stuart Sternberg admitted as much on the field before Saturday's 9-5 loss: "We don't have a lot of room for error right now."
After scoring a 9-6 win over the Red Sox on Friday, the Rays looked to be in good position again Saturday, taking a three-run lead in the first inning with All-Star James Shields on the mound.
"Not a good feeling," even Red Sox manager Terry Francona acknowledged.
But Shields didn't pitch like he has most of the season, and the offense faltered as it has too many times, and their good start turned into a bad ending before a near-sellout crowd of 32,487 at Tropicana Field. The loss dropped the Rays (50-42) back to a season-high six games behind the first-place Sox in the AL East, as well as 4½ behind the wild-card-leading Yankees.
"It's disappointing," Shields said. "With the way we gained a game up on them and now we could have gained two games up on them, and we've got a 3-0 lead right out the gate, I've got to do a better job of that."
Typically, he does — more than 93 percent of the time. Going into Saturday's game, Shields started 60 innings with a lead this season and held it 56 times.
But he wasn't sharp, lacking the control and command, and the consistency in his delivery, that made him so successful over the first three-plus months.
The two home runs he allowed, after giving up just one in his previous seven starts, were a sign. So were the four extra-base hits, one fewer than in his past six outings combined. But so too were some of the balls he threw, just by how much they missed the strike zone.
"His control and command wasn't there, and that's not like him," manager Joe Maddon said. "Even when he gives up runs, he's normally more around the plate. He just did not look comfortable."
Shields didn't have any reasons, such as the disruption of going to the All-Star Game or the extra day of rest, nor any concerns with his fourth straight loss, just disappointment.
"Tonight was not a good game for me," he said. "It was kind of out of my element a little bit from what I've been doing all season long."
Shields had some bad luck, too: Had Josh Reddick's foul tip gone into catcher Kelly Shoppach's glove instead of glancing off during a second-inning at-bat, Reddick would have been out instead of hitting the next pitch for a two-run homer.
Worse, the Sox took the lead with a flurry the next inning. Adrian Gonzalez drew a five-pitch leadoff walk, then Kevin Youkilis singled and David Ortiz and J.D. Drew rapped doubles.
As much as Shields took the blame, his teammates let him down, too. They could have scored more than three runs in the first, the bases loaded when Sam Fuld hit into an inning-ending double play. And they had a similar opportunity in the second, when Casey Kotchman did the same. After getting three hits with runners in scoring position in the first inning, the Rays were 1-for-10 the rest of the way, leaving eight runners on second or third.
"We were feeling great going into the second inning," rightfielder Matt Joyce said. "Put up three runs and Shields is on the mound, and we're just like, 'You know what, we got this. We got it. Just put up some more runs and we'll hold them down and be fine.' "
Instead, the margin just got smaller.