ST. PETERSBURG — A ground ball.
That's what manager Joe Maddon was thinking when he brought in Roberto Hernandez to replace ineffective Joel Peralta with two Red Sox on and one out in the 10th inning of what, for just another few moments, was a tie game.
A ground ball.
Instead he got four balls, as Hernandez, the much-maligned starter whom the Rays were now, in the season's 144th game, counting on as a reliever in a high-leverage situation, walked Mike Napoli to load the bases.
But that wasn't the worst part, as Hernandez's next pitch was rocketed over the centerfield fence by Mike Carp for a pinch-hit grand slam, continuing the Rays' misery with a 7-3 loss Wednesday.
"It doesn't get any worse than this. It feels like a punch in the gut," Rays starter Alex Cobb said. "We're at the low point of this season right now. It can only go up from here."
Maddon explained his reasoning, repeatedly.
Peralta, as has been the case recently, was not sharp. He walked leadoff man Dustin Pedroia, and his velocity was down to 87 mph. An exchange of strategy left Sox on first and second after a bunt and an intentional walk of David Ortiz.
With Napoli due up, Maddon called for Hernandez, saying their data showed a 60 percent chance Napoli would hit a ground ball, presumably into an inning-ending double play. But he walked, then Maddon stuck with Hernandez against lefty-hitting Carp, with lefty Cesar Ramos ready.
"It's all about the process, trying to do the right thing," Maddon said. "People can dispute whatever they want. The situation right there for me, the right guy is the guy that is going to put the ball on the ground. If your guy (Peralta) is on the top of his game right there, you just play it through. … I just thought Roberto was right for that moment."
Peralta didn't dispute that he wasn't, taken out after only 11 pitches.
"I'm not going to complain anything about the decision that they make," he said. "It wasn't my best day, so I'm okay with it."
Hernandez wouldn't say anything, telling reporters: "I'll talk tomorrow."
Somehow, despite losing for the 13th time in 17 games, the Rays (78-66) still hold the AL's second wild-card spot. But the margin has been sliced and the field crowded as the Rays are just one game ahead of the Yankees, 1½ ahead of the Indians and Orioles, and two ahead of the Royals.
Tampa Bay remained 2½ behind the wild-card-leading Rangers and 9½ behind the East-leading Red Sox with 18 to play.
Maddon, naturally, remains optimistic, noting that amid all the "doom and gloom" talk they still hold a playoff spot.
"I don't want our guys to go out there and worry about sharp objects," he said. "Just go out there and just continue to play and get ourselves right."
Earlier in the night, before a gathering of 19,215 that included a lot of red-clad fans, there were teases that the Rays had that moment they had been seeking that would break them out.
In sixth inning, they had the opportunity for a triple play, which surely would have been inspiring, but the Rays came up just short on the final relay. "It reeked of it," Maddon said.
And in the eighth, James Loney hit a one-out tying homer.
They were done in as much by what they did in the 10th as earlier, failing twice more with the bases loaded, now 0-for-their-past-12 and 2-for-22. They committed the now-seemingly daily defensive miscue as rightfielder Wil Myers let a line drive bounce in front and then by him, to score two. And the Rays went 1-for-10 with runners in scoring position, hitting .173 over the 17-game skid.
"You look at a game like this and it's easy to second-guess whatever," Maddon said, "but the truth of the matter is we have to do a better job of scoring runs when we have opportunities.''