ST. PETERSBURG — Through the past couple of months, the Rays bullpen has emerged as one of the majors' best units.
The relievers started to get more comfortable in their roles, knowing when they were going to be used, and it appeared to pay off.
But Sunday, for the second straight game, the Rays let a lead — and a winnable game — get away from the seventh inning on, resulting in a 7-3 loss to the last-place A's that has Tampa Bay entering the All-Star break on a slightly sour note.
Right-hander James Shields delivered another strong start, pleasing a Tropicana Field crowd of 29,727 and leaving in the seventh with a 3-1 lead. But the bullpen gave up four runs, including the unflappable J.P. Howell, who snapped an impressive streak of 17 scoreless appearances by allowing three runs.
"Bullpens are streaky. You slump together, you deal together, and for the better part of the month and a half to two months we've been really throwing well," reliever Joe Nelson said. "The last couple nights our starters gave us great outings and we didn't come through, like we have most of the year. … It's not the taste you want in your mouth when you leave for four days for the break."
Relievers won't be perfect every time out, but they've been a big reason the Rays have one of the best records in the majors since April 30. But it's losses like this that can be disappointing, especially in chasing the first-place Red Sox, who are 61/2 games ahead of the Rays in the AL East.
Manager Joe Maddon said he feels good about his group going into the second half, with the hope that continued consistent starting pitching and sharper defense will get the Rays back up in the standings. Tampa Bay (48-41) will also likely need to improve on the fact that they have losing records against three of the four last-place teams they've faced, with a 13-15 record overall.
Shields had the Rays in good position, opening with six scoreless innings and retiring 14 of 15 batters until Matt Holliday led off the seventh with a double. Kurt Suzuki drove him in on a single. And after Shields walked Landon Powell, putting two runners on with one out, Maddon pulled him after just 89 pitches.
Maddon said he was concerned when Shields — who boasted his staff-best 12th quality start of the season — walked Powell after being ahead in the count 1-and-2.
"Sometimes you'd rather take somebody out one hitter too early as opposed to one too late," Maddon said. "But it worked out in their favor."
Dan Wheeler allowed both inherited runners to score, on a single and a fielder's choice. Lefty specialist Randy Choate then came in and, for the second straight night, gave up a hit to Adam Kennedy, this one a bloop single. With the go-ahead run on third, Chad Bradford relieved Choate and gave up a single to Orlando Cabrera.
The Rays had a 3-0 lead, largely due to Pat Burrell (who had a two-run double) and Ben Zobrist (who threw Cabrera out at the plate in the first). But they couldn't hold on.
"They were tough losses, we got outplayed late in the game and we can't let that happen, and for the most part it's not been happening," Maddon said. "We've normally been winning those games because we've kind of locked down in the bullpen. They just got to us today."
Joe Smith can be reached at email@example.com.