ST. PETERSBURG — Even in their otherwise magical, mystical tour of 2008, the Rays found out Tuesday there are some things in baseball you just don't do — such as beating Toronto ace Roy Halladay four times in a single season.
With Halladay holding them down, and their relievers not doing their usual job of keeping it close after James Shields left, the Rays lost 6-2 before an embarrassingly small, and early leaving, Tropicana Field crowd of 13,478.
"Of course, the odds are against you," Rays manager Joe Maddon said. "But we're trying to do some very special things here this year."
The defeat, at the start of a vital nine-game homestand that leads into a rugged trip, was frustrating enough, their first back-to-back defeats in nearly a month (and first consecutive home losses since mid April). But the Rays also lost All-Star catcher Dioner Navarro, who left in the sixth inning with "cramps in both hamstrings" and was uncertain if he could play tonight.
And they lost another game off their American League East lead to the Red Sox, who not only beat the Yankees to pull within 3½ games (closest they've been since Aug. 16) but reportedly bolstered their lineup by acquiring outfielder Mark Kotsay.
The secret to beating Halladay three times (joining the 2007 Red Sox as the only teams to do so), Maddon said, isn't what you do at the plate but on the mound.
"When you're facing Halladay you have to outpitch them, and we didn't do that tonight," he said.
Shields was not his sharpest, allowing three early runs, but was still typically competitive.
"I thought I pitched pretty well, but when you're facing Halladay you have to be on your 'A' game,'' Shields said. "It was probably a 'B' game, I guess.''
The Rays managed only three singles through the first five innings against Halladay, then two runs on three singles, a hit batter and a wild pitch in the sixth, with Eric Hinske's two-out hit the key. With a chance for more, and Navarro unable to continue, the Rays used Shawn Riggans to pinch hit and he struck out, allowing Halladay to leave with a 3-2 lead.
"Honestly, I don't know how we beat him three times," Hinske said. "He's probably the best pitcher in baseball."
Halladay (15-6 against everyone else) said he wasn't thinking about the three losses: "It's hard to focus on things like that. I think you have to go in with a game plan and you're definitely aware that it's a team that can get you at any point.''
The Jays built on their lead from there, scoring one run in each of the last three innings. In the seventh, after Shields left with two out and two on, it was an odd-bouncing chopper that third baseman Willy Aybar couldn't handle. "I know that Willy makes that play and it just didn't happen for us tonight," Maddon said.
In the eighth, it was a two-out homer by Rod Barajas on an 0-and-2 pitch from J.P. Howell. And in the ninth, it was a two-out homer by red-hot Vernon Wells (9-for-14 with four homers in three games) off Jason Hammel.
"We needed to keep it there at 3-2 to have a chance to win that thing," Maddon said.
The crowd was the second smallest since late May.
Marc Topkin can be reached at [email protected]