As encouraged as manager Joe Maddon has been about where the Rays are despite not having played their best baseball, he said the main reason his team is off to a "mediocre" start, and still under .500, is because of a frustrating inability to hold a lead.
But as many games as Tampa Bay has let slip through its fingers, none has been as stunning — and potentially deflating — as Monday's 8-7 loss to the struggling Blue Jays, who overcame a seven-run third-inning deficit, J.P. Arencibia hitting a two-out, two-run home run in the ninth to stun a small gathering of 9,952 at Tropicana Field. Toronto had been down to its final strike.
It was the Rays' largest blown lead in a loss ever at the Trop, and their biggest overall since seeing a 10-0 lead disappear in an 11-10 loss in Cleveland on May 25, 2009.
"I didn't see it coming," second baseman Ryan Roberts said. "I don't think anybody did."
Said Kelly Johnson: "You can't lose a game you're up 7-0. That's the bottom line."
The Rays (14-17), who opened a 10-game homestand, have squandered a lead in 12 of their defeats, with Maddon saying the key is not letting this one linger into tonight.
"It's gotta stop," Maddon said. "We're much better than that. … You lose a game like this and it's tough and everyone is going to go home very upset. But I'll tell you what, the bounce after the fall, that's what I want to see."
There was plenty of blame to go around in this one. Maddon said right-hander Jeremy Hellickson needed to pitch more than the five innings he did in another rough start.
The defense was shaky, with a couple of miscues by shortstop Yunel Escobar extending the Jays' eighth-inning rally, and catcher Jose Molina's throwing error putting the tying run at third with no outs in the ninth.
Through all that, Tampa Bay nearly escaped, with closer Fernando Rodney — brought in during the eighth for a rare multi-inning save attempt — retiring two straight to come one strike from the win. But Arencibia connected on an elevated 2-and-2 fastball for the go-ahead two-run homer to give the last-place Jays (12-21) an improbable come-from-behind win.
"I feel sorry for what happened" Monday night, Rodney said. "Because the bullpen couldn't hold the game."
In fairness, the Rays didn't look like they were going to need Rodney after taking a 7-0 lead in the third. Johnson, who had three hits against his former team, hit an RBI single, Evan Longoria a grand slam and Luke Scott a two-run homer.
But Hellickson gave three right back in a 39-pitch fourth, including a two-run homer to Colby Rasmus.
"It's frustrating," Hellickson said.
Lefty Jake McGee was tagged for a two-run homer in the sixth, and the Jays scored one in the eighth on a sacrifice fly after Escobar botched a potential inning-ending double play ball.
"It's a difficult loss, no question," Maddon said. "But it's about how we react (tonight)."
Joe Smith can be reached at email@example.com.