ST. PETERSBURG — The Rays reached the halfway point of their season Wednesday with a 4-3 loss to the Reds that seemed appropriately indicative of why they are where they are: in the race for a postseason berth but not in command.
A strong performance by their starting pitcher, James Shields striking out 10 over seven innings with only one big regret, a three-run homer. And not enough production from their inconsistent offense, which was held to five hits and three runs.
"It's terrible to watch it go like that," third baseman Evan Longoria. "Obviously 10 strikeouts in seven innings, he threw the ball really well outside of one mistake. … You wish as an offense we could come back and score four, five, six runs and not have to have him worry that one mistake pitch that he made.
"It's a tough one for all of us to swallow today."
The loss left the Rays in third place in the AL East at 45-36, which projects over the full season to 90 wins, good considering all the changes they made from last season but likely not good enough to get them back to the postseason.
They went into an off day with a mostly optimistic view, pointing to their horrendous start (0-6, 1-8), the juggling forced by the "retirement" of Manny Ramirez and Longoria's month-long injury absence, and a general feeling that the offense can improve and they will play better at home, where they have a losing record (19-20) under the tilted roof. On the other hand, they have 29 games remaining with the Yankees and Red Sox, including 11 on either side of the upcoming All-Star break.
"We've got a lot of stuff that I definitely think we can do better," Longoria said, "but that being said, you can't hate the spot that we're in with us feeling like we really haven't played like we're capable of playing."
"Things could be a lot worse than they are now," said centerfielder B.J. Upton, who homered for the fourth time in the past week. "I think we've put ourselves in a pretty good position. We've lost a lot of close ballgames."
He's right, as they're just 19-15 in games decided by one or two runs. But that's how they're built to play them, with the starters keeping them in the game and the hope that the offense can provide enough cover and the bullpen, which was rebuilt from last season, can finish it off.
Wednesday's matinee, before a kid-infused crowd of 25,968 at Tropicana Field, was the 15th time in 81 games they scored three or fewer runs and had five or fewer hits. And it was the 15th time they lost.
"We have to play better offensively," manager Joe Maddon said. "It's there, we just have to get more consistent with it."
Shields really didn't do much wrong — though anything less than a fourth straight complete game win was going to look that way — as he allowed two singles to start the fourth, struck out the next two then hung a curveball that catcher Ryan Hanigan knocked into the leftfield seats for his first homer since April 3.
The Rays cut it to 3-2 on Longoria's bloop double in the sixth, Shields allowed an RBI single by Fred Lewis with two outs in the seventh and the Rays got no closer after Upton's one-out homer.
Shields regretted the two mistakes but otherwise liked where the Rays stood.
"We're in the hunt," he said. "We're exactly where we want to be. The way we started off the season wasn't too good. We've been grinding all first half. I'm very pleased with the way we've been playing."
Marc Topkin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.