BOSTON — The Rays' ability to beat the Red Sox is a prime reason they got back into the wild-card race.
But Friday they felt strongly — and loudly during manager Joe Maddon's tirade after his ejection — they were also battling something else, an unfair strike zone called by umpire Hunter Wendelstedt, that proved to be too much in a costly 4-3 defeat.
"It was an egregiously bad strike zone tonight, and I really hope that somebody takes a look at it because it was that bad," Maddon said. "Our hitters were at a great disadvantage tonight; they really were. And I definitely saw it as being one-sided."
The loss drops the Rays (83-67) back to four games behind the AL wild-card-leading Red Sox and, with only 12 games left, puts them pretty much in must-win mode for today's nationally televised game, with Jeff Niemann facing Boston ace Jon Lester.
"If we could get (today's) and Sunday's game, that still puts us in pretty good shape," Maddon said. "But it was made much more difficult tonight by the actions of the home-plate umpire."
The Rays certainly brought a lot of the loss on themselves: Starter James Shields wasn't as sharp as he had been, allowing four runs on seven hits in seven-plus innings. Catcher John Jaso had a miserable game at and behind the plate, 0-for-4 with three strikeouts, two steals allowed, two wild pitches on blockable balls. They took two leads against Josh Beckett and couldn't hold them. Their hitters went 2-for-13 with runners in scoring position, left nine men on and struck out 15 times, tying their season high.
But four of the strikeouts were looking, plus two on checked swings, and they felt those calls and several others midcount went against them due to Wendelstedt's extraordinarily wide zone — 4-5 extra inches, Maddon said, to the lines of the batter's box.
"It was very one-sided," Jaso said. "A guy in my position gets a good look at what's going on. You go out there and you expect umpires to have pride in what they do back there, and it just felt like it wasn't there. … It was pretty bad."
The Rays, who had beaten the Sox six straight times and 10 of 15 for the season, took a 2-0 lead on the 28th homer by Evan Longoria, who also made a pair of dazzling plays at third. The two runs were an accomplishment since they had managed only two hits in 17 shutout innings in two previous games against Beckett, who returned with six solid innings after missing a start with a sprained ankle.
Shields didn't have much command or a breaking ball to start and allowed the Sox to tie it. The Rays took another lead in the third on a Longoria single, but Shields gave it back again. The Sox went ahead to stay in the fourth when No. 9 hitter Mike Aviles hit a two-out homer on a changeup Shields left up.
"I guess the game came down to that," Shields said. "But we had a bunch of chances to score tonight, and I didn't do my job early, and we lost the game that way."
Maddon pretty much absolved the Rays of blame, lauding their tenacity — including a last-ditch effort when B.J. Upton singled with two outs in the ninth but Longoria stuck out — and sympathizing with their frustrations.
The two most inflammatory calls came with runners on, one in the fifth on Upton (who had plenty to say to the umpire but declined comment) and the other on Jaso to end the sixth. Managers aren't allowed to argue balls and strikes, so Maddon said he went out to ask Wendelstedt "what was going on" with the zone since his players were complaining. But it quickly escalated as Maddon was tossed, then got loud, intimate and animated with Wendelstedt.
"It's tough enough beating Beckett, but when he's getting pitches on the chalk lines, that makes it much more difficult," Maddon said. "He definitely was helped by the width of the plate. For me not to admit to that I'm taking away from the fight of our players and their tenacity."
Marc Topkin can be reached at email@example.com.