ST. PETERSBURG — Rays manager Joe Maddon was encouraged with many things in Thursday's 3-2 loss to the White Sox.
There was right-hander Jeff Niemann, who bounced back after a rough first start by keeping the ball down — and keeping his composure — including during a bases-loaded jam in the sixth sparked by a controversial play (and Maddon's ejection).
There was a strong effort by the bullpen, including a confidence-building outing by recently struggling Grant Balfour, who looked "more like his old self" in striking out two with the bases loaded in the ninth.
But it all rang hollow due to a familiar culprit: a fizzling offense that went 0-for-11 with runners in scoring position and stranded the tying run at third in the ninth for a third straight loss in front of an announced 13,803 at Tropicana Field.
In those three losses, the Rays (4-6) have combined for just 14 hits and seven runs. As a result, they have lost those one-run games they were so successful at last season. After going 29-18 in 2008, they are 1-3.
Maddon said he wasn't overly concerned but said the Rays, who struck out 10 times Thursday, just haven't found their way offensively.
"We're going to hit. We're going to be just fine," said catcher Dioner Navarro, who popped out to short with runners on second and third and one out in the fourth and grounded into a fielder's choice with runners on first and second and two outs in the eighth.
"We just have to take advantage of the opportunities. We've faced some pretty good (pitchers), and I think pitchers get ready faster than hitters. And I think we're still in that process."
Niemann, 26, who was too "amped up" in his first start Saturday — allowing the first six batters to reach and giving up a grand slam in a five-run burst — tamed a slugging White Sox lineup, allowing two runs in six innings.
But the rookie saved his best for a bases-loaded, one-out jam in the sixth sparked by a second chance for Jermaine Dye. Dye had apparently grounded out to third for the second out but barely left the batters box. He argued he fouled the ball off his left foot, pointing vigorously to it and joining manager Ozzie Guillen in an argument with the umpires.
After the umpires examined the ball, they ruled it a foul ball. Maddon objected in a heated argument, pointing repeatedly toward Dye and his shoe and later saying it's "very difficult to get a black mark on a ball from a gray shoe" and "none of the umpires (originally) called foul ball."
Maddon was ejected (his 10th as Rays manager, passing former manager Lou Piniella for second in club history), and Dye turned his reprieve into the first of three straight White Sox singles to load the bases.
But Niemann stayed calm and made a great defensive play on a slow roller by Alexei Ramirez, barehanding it and throwing out Dye at home with an underhand scoop. He then got Brian Anderson to ground out to end the threat.
The Rays got solid work from their bullpen (one run in three innings), including a strong outing by Balfour, who struck out Jim Thome and Dye with the bases loaded in the ninth after inheriting a two-on, one-out situation.
But the Rays offense was once again held in check.
"We just didn't get the big hit," said rightfielder Gabe Kapler, who fouled out to first with Jason Bartlett on second and one out in the seventh. "You don't capitalize, you lose games, especially against good pitching."