DETROIT — The pitch Grant Balfour threw that led to Sunday's frustrating 4-3 loss to the Tigers was bad enough. Then the reliever took a swipe at the strategy that led to the Rays' demise.
Trying to protect a 3-1 eighth-inning lead after another sterling start by rookie Jeff Niemann, Balfour said the orders he got to pitch around Curtis Granderson led him to pitch poorly to the next hitter, Placido Polanco, who hit a three-run homer.
"I kinda wish I wasn't … that was the thing, they come out and say can I pitch around him. I don't want to pitch around Granderson, to be honest. I feel like I'm pitching on the defense then," Balfour said. "I wish I never even got that into my head."
The damage was considerable, as the Rays gave away yet another game they looked to have won and dropped 5½ games behind Boston in what soon might not be much of an AL wild-card race.
"We just let it get away, obviously," manager Joe Maddon said. "We've been doing that."
Even with six of their remaining 33 games against the Red Sox, including three at the Trop starting Tuesday, the Rays have made it very hard on themselves. Consider it this way: If the Sox split their remaining 32 games, the Rays (70-59) have to go 23-10 to finish ahead of them.
"We can't afford to lose games like we lost (Sunday)," leftfielder Carl Crawford said. "So I just hope we don't do it too many more times. Because we're getting close to the line where we'll be eliminated officially, so we just want to stay in it as long as we can."
For much of the cool afternoon, they looked like they would. Niemann made a strong bid for his 13th win, and they scored three runs quickly in the fourth off Tigers 15-game winner Justin Verlander, as Evan Longoria hit a two-run homer, his first in 19 games, and four pitches later, Akinori Iwamura hit his first since last September.
Maddon said the Rays had a sound plan to finish it off. Niemann, who worked impressively into the eighth, was removed after allowing a leadoff double on his 96th pitch. Balfour — who Maddon said is throwing as well as he has all year — got two quick outs. Pitching coach Jim Hickey then went out to instruct Balfour to work cautiously — meaning to throw his pitches and not give in on any count — to Granderson, a lefty swinger with 25 home runs but who ranks among the AL leaders in strikeouts.
They did that rather than bring in a lefty because they thought the Tigers might pinch-hit righty Marcus Thames for Granderson, and also because they liked — "a lot," Maddon said — the next matchup: the hard-throwing Balfour on Polanco, 0-for-11 in the series and without a hit since Wednesday.
Balfour did as told and walked Granderson on five pitches, thus putting the tying run on base.
"I should have just challenged him more than trying to pitch around him," Balfour said.
Then he did something horribly wrong.
With the Rays so confident that they waved their outfielders in to prevent a possible bloop hit, Balfour fell behind 2-and-0 to Polanco, then left a fastball up that ended up a looping fly ball that carried just over the wall, despite a valiant effort by Crawford, for just the eighth home run of the season for the Tigers second baseman.
"I just challenged the first two guys, going right at them," Balfour said. "And now I'm pitching around him, and then I kind of went on the defense and that's when I got hurt."
Maddon said the problem wasn't the plan but the performance: "We just have to make better pitches."