ST. PETERSBURG — The Rays could tell early on Tuesday night that R.A. Dickey's typically unpredictable knuckleball was dancing more than usual.
"From the first inning, when you have the catcher missing half the balls he's throwing, you know his stuff is moving," leftfielder Matt Joyce said.
Dickey, Toronto's veteran right-hander, baffled Tampa Bay, which mustered just two hits in an 8-2 loss in front of an announced crowd of 10,125 at Tropicana Field. Dickey admitted his signature pitch was tough to control, as evidenced by his three walks, two hit batters and wild pitch.
"That thing moves, that thing bounces," Rays centerfielder Kevin Kiermaier said. "It's tough to figure out."
While Dickey's pitches were dipping and diving, so was Rays right-hander Jeremy Hellickson, who tried to wiggle his way out of jams throughout his rough 31/3-inning outing.
"The whole night, I was concerned," manager Joe Maddon said.
After Hellickson escaped a bases-loaded, no-out situation in the third, largely thanks to a 1-2-3 double play, Maddon let the right-hander start the fourth. Hellickson gave up back-to-back infield hits to the bottom two batters in the order then left a 3-and-2 fastball over the plate to leadoff man Jose Reyes, who ripped a tiebreaking three-run homer.
"That," Maddon said, "was the big difference in the game."
Maddon thought Hellickson had good stuff, but it came down to "poorly located pitches at the wrong time." It led to what Maddon called Hellickson's least effective start since coming off the disabled list in July. He allowed five runs on eight hits and fell to 0-2 with a 6.16 ERA in his past four starts after posting a 2.03 ERA through five.
"It's very frustrating," Hellickson said. "I just wanted to bounce back after that start in Baltimore. It's extremely frustrating."
The Rays (67-72) couldn't grab any momentum from Monday's walkoff win over the Red Sox and have lost 11 of 17, further damaging their bleak playoff hopes.
Tampa Bay made a few impressive defensive plays, with Joyce robbing Josh Thole of a homer at the 162 Landing in leftfield in the second and shortstop Yunel Escobar saving two runs with a diving stop in the ninth. And the Rays got some solid middle relief, with rookie Steve Geltz striking out three of the four batters he faced and Brandon Gomes throwing 22/3 hitless innings.
But ex-Ray Dioner Navarro put it out of reach in the eighth with a pinch-hit, two-run homer, his third homer against Tampa Bay this season.
That came after Dickey had already made it a long night for the Rays, with the two hits the fewest he has allowed since June 26, 2013 at Tropicana Field, a two-hit shutout. "He loves it here," Maddon said.
"Guys were missing his stuff by quite a big amount," Joyce said. "It's just one of those nights where you've just got to roll with it, got to wear it."
Reach Joe Smith at [email protected] Follow @TBTimes_JSmith.