ST. PETERSBURG — The Rays threw on their hockey jerseys Sunday afternoon, the planned wardrobe for the NHL-themed trip to Toronto.
And after falling 8-5 to the White Sox in front of 26,878 at Tropicana Field to complete what James Shields labeled a "terrible" 2-5 homestand, they are more than ready to switch to their road uniforms and a much-needed change of scenery.
"We need to put the grays on," manager Joe Maddon said of the Rays, who are 19-5 on the road. "The whites and powder blues have been kicking our butts."
Though the Rays (34-17) still have the best record in the majors and a 3½-game lead in the American League East, they said that rings a bit hollow following their first rough stretch of the season.
"Anybody knows we're the best team in baseball right now, record-wise," Shields said. "But as far as I'm concerned, the way we're playing right now, we're not playing like the best team in baseball. Pitching, hitting, defense. It's either one is clicking and one's not right now, and we need to get better."
Sunday, Shields said he needed to be better, taking the blame after what he called a "ridiculous" and "absolutely terrible" outing. He gave up a season-high seven runs, matched a season high with 11 hits and allowed the last seven batters he faced to reach base.
"To me, that's unacceptable," Shields said. "I'm better than that. You can put that loss on me."
The tipping point came in the sixth, after the Rays rallied to tie the score at 3 with a two-run rally in the fifth. Shields walked leadoff hitter Paul Konerko, gave up a single to Mark Kotsay then, after getting ahead 0-and-2 on Carlos Quentin, threw three straight balls then hit him with a pitch, loading the bases.
Jayson Nix, a .167 hitter who had replaced injured Mark Teahen at third, then ripped his first career grand slam to left on a full-count fastball and, according to Shields, admired it a bit too much.
"This guy is doing a bat-flip, kind of pimping the home run a little bit," Shields said. "That's just sometimes the way it happens. I guess when you hit a game-winning grand slam, I guess you can do that."
The Rays nearly came back again. Their offense showed some life, with Reid Brignac (who had two hits) and Carl Crawford (who had four) coming up with RBI singles in the sixth to cut the lead to two. And in the seventh, Upton came inches away from tying the score, but his long fly to left was caught at the top of the wall by a leaping Juan Pierre — a ball both teams believed was tipped by a fan's glove.
"I think we got a break, from what I heard," White Sox reliever Matt Thornton said.
Maddon called his team's fight and effort "absolutely fabulous." As the Rays did all homestand, they made sparkling defensive plays (including a diving catch by Upton) and were aggressive on the bases. Maddon even liked Carlos Peña's intentions despite getting thrown out trying to go from first to third on a bloop single in the seventh.
And Maddon said despite the Rays hitting their first "bump" of the season, it's about perspective.
"During spring training, if you were to tell me we'd be in this position right now, I'd take it," Maddon said. "I'd take the bump."
Joe Smith can be reached at email@example.com.