ST. PETERSBURG — Rays manager Joe Maddon said that in the first two games against the Marlins, "we won with our recipe" of strong pitching and sharp defense.
Neither components were clicking Sunday, and the Marlins made Tampa Bay pay with their forte: the longball.
The Marlins, who lead the major leagues with 101 home runs, hit two three-run shots off recently struggling Edwin Jackson to beat the Rays 9-3 in front of a Father's Day crowd of 28,886 at the Trop.
Though Maddon said his team's obvious disappointment in not closing out the three-game series is a significant step over previous seasons, when "if we won a couple games, it was okay," the raised expectations revealed the potential for another growth moment. For Tampa Bay (40-29), which fell 21/2 games back of Boston, Sunday marked the third time it came up short in a potential sweep-clinching game.
"We've gotta go for the kill once in a while," veteran DH Cliff Floyd said. "It's not going to happen all the time, but once in a while, you need to beat teams when they're down. … Sweeping guys is the difference between winning 90 some games and winning 88 games, (between) finishing in third place and being in the wild card."
The momentum swung early on one swing in the second from Wes Helms. Jackson, who once again struggled with his fastball command, walked two straight batters before the third baseman crushed a slider 390 feet over the leftfield wall.
Jackson labored through five innings, walking three, throwing a wild pitch and hitting a batter, giving up six runs for the third time this season. He admitted he tried to finesse too many pitches, and when he left a changeup up in the fifth, Mike Jacobs ripped another three-run homer to put the Marlins up 6-0.
Jackson has now gone five straight outings without a quality start (six or more innings, three or fewer runs) and is 2-6 in his past dozen outings since opening the season 2-0 with a sparkling 0.64 ERA. The 24-year-old right-hander insists his approach hasn't changed, "I just need to keep attacking hitters."
"It's not like it's an overt concern for me right now," Maddon said of Jackson's performance. "We just need to get him back to where he had been early on, and just make better quality pitches. Fastball command; it starts with that. And it's not been there for him."
On the other hand, Maddon called Marlins starter Ricky Nolasco's breaking ball command "uncanny." Nolasco struck out 12 in his 132-pitch effort, throwing all his pitches for strikes. Tampa Bay mustered just RBI singles by Jason Bartlett and Gabe Gross and a solo homer by Eric Hinske.
The Rays defense, which has sparkled throughout their remarkable run, had a few hiccups. For the second straight Sunday, Gross and B.J. Upton had a miscommunication in right-center, allowing a catchable ball to fall in for extra bases. Bartlett later committed a throwing error.
"To have the momentum, play so well the first two nights; to come in and pretty much not play well today, that's disappointing," Maddon said. "We have to be able to move beyond those moments."