ST. PETERSBURG — Considering the way the Rays made Tropicana Field the majors' best homefield advantage last season, losing a homestand is, as manager Joe Maddon said, "not very good for us, because we do make a lot of hay when we're here."
But the Rays will now have to play catchup on the road after losing five of seven during Championship Week at the Trop, including Sunday's 12-2 loss to the White Sox in front of 29,142, many of whom left early as chants of "Let's Go White Sox" were heard near the end.
The Rays (5-8) have lost five of six, falling to last place in the American League East.
"It just seemed like … nothing was going right," veteran reliever Dan Wheeler said. "Pitching, defense, offense. All of it. It's a team loss."
The Rays' health also became an issue Sunday. Centerfielder B.J. Upton left early with a slightly strained right quadriceps, and third baseman Evan Longoria was a late switch to DH after tweaking his left foot in Saturday's game.
However, both are expected back in their usual spots Tuesday when the team opens a nine-game road trip, with the Rays hoping a change of scenery — and stepping away from the weeklong ceremonies celebrating 2008 — will help turn things around in 2009.
They pointed to how early it is, how they bounced back so many times last season and started their World Series run in similar fashion, by losing their first homestand (and a series to the White Sox) in April 2008 to fall to last place in the East only to rise back up.
"We're gonna come around," utilityman Ben Zobrist said. "This is such a good team, there's so many good things that are going to happen this year. We're definitely not going to get down on ourselves at all."
The Rays certainly didn't look like themselves. For the third straight game, their starting pitcher struggled with his command, with Matt Garza tying a career high with seven earned runs and setting a career mark with five walks, throwing only 54 of 98 pitches for strikes in 52/3 innings.
"Location, location, location," Garza said. "I walked the entire lineup, I think it was."
Maddon said the walks — the Rays issued 10 Saturday — "have to go."
"I can't give you an explanation because that's not part of our past," he said.
Neither are struggles for the bullpen, which had a rough day with Lance Cormier, Wheeler and Troy Percival giving up 11 hits and five runs in 31/3 innings.
And Maddon said hitters are still trying too hard to get themselves out of an all-or-nothing slump. With a few regulars having the day off (Pat Burrell, Dioner Navarro and Jason Bartlett), Zobrist's two-run homer in the seventh was all they could muster.
"When you don't get off to a good start, you don't get off to a good start," Maddon said. "If it happens in the middle of the season, you're in a slump. And if you do it at the end of the year, you're choking. It just happens to be happening at the beginning, which makes it even more glaring."
Joe Smith can be reached at email@example.com.