NEW YORK — Joe Maddon had the right idea.
He just had the wrong reliever.
Maddon planned to bring lefty Randy Choate into a key sixth-inning situation Monday, but as the result of a "miscommunication" he took full blame for, instead was surprised to be handing the ball to righty Grant Balfour.
And then he was watching in dismay as Balfour allowed a three-run homer to Curtis Granderson that proved the difference in the 8-6 loss to the Yankees.
"I went out there and I was on the mound, and all of a sudden I'm giving the ball to the pitcher and it didn't look like Randy Choate," Maddon said. "I'd already gone through some scenarios, so it was my fault, totally my fault. Big F-A-U-L-T. My fault. I screwed up."
The costly mixup with pitching coach Jim Hickey apparently occurred earlier in the inning as Matt Garza, in a third straight poor start that has to be raising concerns, negated the Rays' rally to wipe out the Yankees' 4-0 lead and gave it right back by allowing three straight hits.
"I had talked to Hick about getting up Choate earlier, but it was my fault," Maddon said. "I really miscommunicated with him."
The mixup was a key part of the night, but it wasn't the only reason the Rays lost. Not with another inefficient night offensively and not with another poor performance by Garza, who allowed seven runs (five earned).
Maddon said Garza is healthy and the problems stem from a lack of command and trying too hard. "His pitch-making ability hasn't been the same,'' Maddon said.
But Garza, who mentioned "September soreness" two starts ago, again suggested he wasn't 100 percent, saying he's feeling "nicks and bruises" and the "wear and tear of the season.'' But he also said it was "nothing dramatic, nothing huge to put a halt on this train from going.''
The loss dropped the Rays to 89-60 and 1½ games behind the 91-59 Yankees, the most they have been out of first since Sept. 10. The Rays remained 6½ ahead of Boston in the wild-card race.
The Yankees took a 4-0 lead, on Granderson's first homer, a two-run shot in the third that was the seventh Garza has allowed in three starts, and a two-run rally in the fifth started by second baseman Ben Zobrist's error.
The Rays rallied to tie with four runs in the sixth inning, scoring on, in order, a catcher's interference call (the major-league-high sixth with Carl Crawford at the plate), a double-play grounder, a single to right and a walk.
And that's when the night went from bad to worse.
After Garza allowed the go-ahead run (to be fair, on an infield single, a ball through the shortstop hole as Jason Bartlett broke to cover second and a Derek Jeter double), Maddon decided to make a change.
Though the bullpen is visible from the dugout, he didn't notice that the right-handed Balfour was warming up as he went to the mound signaling for a lefty. The umpires waved toward the bullpen, and Balfour headed to the mound, with no reason to think anything was amiss.
"I was the only one warming up, so I don't know who else was going to go in," Balfour said. "It's not my call. That's not my job. My job is to go out and pitch."
And Balfour didn't think he did a bad job, falling behind 2-and-1 and throwing a high fastball that Granderson lofted down the line and off the foul pole for a three-run homer that made it 8-4.
"I don't know how he hit it out, to be honest," Balfour said. Maddon could have had Balfour walk Granderson to load the bases (since he is required to pitch to one batter) but decided to let him face him. (Interestingly, Granderson was 5-for-6 against Choate; two walks and a bunt vs. Balfour.)
"Everything was going pretty quickly, and I did not express myself properly so it was absolutely my fault," Maddon said.
Marc Topkin can be reached at email@example.com.