OAKLAND, Calif. — Rays players and officials talked a lot before Tuesday's game about how the absence of injured stars Carl Crawford and Evan Longoria wouldn't necessarily change things.
That's not necessarily a good thing.
It wasn't Tuesday, anyway, in a 2-1 loss to a struggling Oakland team that did nothing to quell the concern the Rays are going to struggle. Plus, their American League East lead over Boston was reduced to three games.
Scott Kazmir, despite adjustments to his delivery that he said felt good, still pitched himself out of the game after five innings, allowing just two runs, on a second-inning homer by Bobby Crosby, and a season-low two hits but throwing 97 pitches (43 balls) to 20 batters.
And the offense continued its frustrating futility, wasting chances and — after prescient pregame comments from veteran Cliff Floyd about players trying to do too much — making a trio of glaring mistakes on the bases.
"We kind of messed things up. We kind of shot ourselves in the foot," Rays manager Joe Maddon said. "It's one of those situations where I think we were trying real hard. ...
"I'm sure everybody feels it's their responsibility to pick things up. I just want us to keep playing the same game we've been playing to this point.''
It was bad enough in the fourth inning when Gio Gonzalez, in his second big-league start, walked two with one out but the Rays got nothing when Justin Ruggiano and Dioner Navarro both struck out. And in the sixth, when they had first and second (after Rocco Baldelli singled and Willy Aybar walked), but Ruggiano hit into a fielder's choice and Navarro and Ben Zobrist flied out.
But it was worse in the fifth when they had first and third with no outs. Akinori Iwamura did a bad job with a safety squeeze, bunting the ball back right to Gonzalez coming off the mound instead of toward first base, and Zobrist — who said "we really needed to execute it well" because it seemed the A's knew it was coming — compounded the problem by not reading it well and breaking for the plate anyway and got tagged out.
Said Zobrist: "I'm waiting to see the ball down, and as soon as I saw it down I took off. It just happened to be right at him. It's a tough play. It's a tough bunt, especially lefty on lefty I'm sure. From there my job is to just to try to get into a rundown, but I wasn't able to do that.''
Said Iwamura: "I was not skilled enough to put the bunt down toward first base. I'll work on it.''
And after that, Jason Bartlett, who had moved up on the out, got caught leaning as he was about to break for third and instead got picked off second. After B.J. Upton, who'd struck out twice, singled to right to again put runners on the corners, Carlos Pena flied out.
And it looked bad again in the eighth when Aybar singled with one out but lost track of the outs as he took off on pinch-hitter Eric Hinske's liner to left and never went back, doubled off easily.
"Willy just not knowing the outs — I always talk about how much of a baseball player he is
and he just messed up,'' Maddon said. "And he'll tell you that straight up.''
Overall, it wasn't a good night.
"You feel bad after a game like that because we did have our chances and we blew it,'' Zobrist said. "It's just one of those games you wish you could have back again.''
The Rays (71-47) were finished off in the ninth by Oakland rookie Brad Ziegler, who ran his remarkable career-starting scoreless streak to an AL rookie record 38 innings.
The Rays are hoping to fill in the best they can for Longoria, who they hope returns by Sept. 1 from a broken right wrist, and Crawford, who is likely to miss the rest of the regular season following Thursday surgery to repair a tendon problem in his right hand. Tuesday against a Oakland lefty, that meant starting Ruggiano, just called up from Triple A, in leftfield and Aybar at third base.
Kazmir came into the game against an A's team that had lost 21 of 24 with great expectations that a slight adjustment to the length of his stride would result in a significant improvement, after he failed to last six innings in eight of his previous 10 starts.
He got through the first inning okay but started the second by walking Emil Brown, after being ahead in the count 1-and-2, then allowing a full-count homer to Crosby to left-center. "That's where I always get hurt, it always ends up being a 3-2 pitch or something behind in the count where I just kind of try to get a strike with it, and kind of let up just a little bit,'' Kazmir said. "And I gave up a home run with a fastball.''
He got two outs and then two on in the third, and settled down from there, retiring his last seven. Kazmir said he felt "so much better" with the shorter stride, though it took a few innings to get comfortable, and he still is relying too much on his fastball because he's not comfortable throwing his slider.
"The last three innings I really felt like everything was working good, I was going downhill and the ball was coming out (of his hand) pretty good,'' Kazmir said. "The last inning I threw a couple sliders I felt like were real nice. All in all, I just have to go deeper into the game, that's the bottom line.''
Maddon, and the Rays, want him to. "He was a little bit better toward the end, overall still not where he wants to be command-wise, but I liked the way he finished off,'' Maddon said.
"He seemed to be getting a little bit of a rhythm. I wish I felt comfortable about letting him go back out one more, but I didn't — 97 pitches I thought was good. But I thought toward the end it started to look a little bit better. Velocity was very good, just, again, the fastball command.''
Marc Topkin can be reached at [email protected]