MINNEAPOLIS — The hitters wasted repeated chances to build on the lead. The starting pitcher didn't have anywhere near his best stuff. The defense was sloppy enough to allow two runs.
But, still, the Rays took a two-run lead into the ninth inning Sunday, needing only for Grant Balfour to get the final three outs against the bottom third of the Twins order to seal a fifth straight win.
Then that failed, too.
With their bullpen nearly bare, the Rays turned to rookie Kirby Yates. The first time they tried him in a save situation a week and a half ago, he bombed, giving up a three-run homer that cost them the game.
Sunday, it couldn't have worked out any better. Yates got the final two outs for his first big-league save, and the Rays escaped with a 5-3 win, and a series sweep, that they couldn't dare let get away.
"It's awesome," Yates said. "Giving it up didn't feel too good, so trying to avoid that at all costs. We won, and that's all you can ask for."
The Rays continued their charge back into contention, winning for the 14th time in 18 games and 23rd in 34 to improve to 47-53, moving to within six games of the Mariners for the second American League wild card and 71/2 of the AL East-leading Orioles.
The inefficiency of the offense — going 4-for-15 with runners in scoring position and leaving 12 men on — left manager Joe Maddon uncomfortable all day, though Evan Longoria did manage to break Carl Crawford's franchise mark for doubles (216) and tie his RBI record (592).
Watching Chris Archer work without his top-end velocity and have to pitch his way out of several jams, making more use of the changeup, didn't help. Nor did watching errors by rightfielder Kevin Kiermaier and Archer, plus a wild pitch, lead to runs.
"It didn't have a lot of great taste about it," Maddon said.
The lack of dependable options in the bullpen — a legit concern if they are to make a serious run — eventually made it worse.
Maddon went first to his two most reliables. Brad Boxberger replaced Archer to finish the seventh, then Jake McGee, against the core of the order, started the eighth. And it was a battle as he needed 29 pitches, with 13 being fouled off.
With Joel Peralta ill (and possibly headed to the disabled list), Maddon turned to Balfour, who has struggled mightily (29 hits and 29 walks in 362/3 innings) but teased with some promise of returning to form, such as cleaning up a pitch-tipping problem.
Not Sunday. Balfour fell behind his first man, No. 7 hitter Eduardo Escobar, though got a flyout. But then he walked pinch-hitter Kurt Suzuki on four pitches and pesky ex-Ray Sam Fuld on seven, and Maddon had seen enough.
"That's a spot Grant should be able to handle," Maddon said. "He's just not right yet. The command is off. The walks are high. And it's just not working."
And that has a residual effect on the bullpen, and the rest of the team, and the chance to get back in the playoff race, and to not trade David Price.
"We have to grow our bullpen," Maddon said. "We talk about making the lineup longer, we have to get the bullpen longer to permit people to not have to pitch so often."
As bad as the July 9 game against Kansas City turned out, Maddon insisted that it wasn't a matter of Yates failing or being unable to handle it, just that he threw a bad pitch.
Yates, called up a month earlier (after going 16-for-16 in saves with a 0.36 ERA at Triple-A Durham), admitted Sunday there was a little more going on that night. "I'd never been in that situation ever," Yates said. "I had nerves. I had stuff I'd never felt before."
But that bad experience helped make this a good one, as Yates was able to control his emotions, slow the game down and, most importantly, make the pitches to get the final two outs.
"I knew I was better than that," Yates said. "(Sunday) feels a lot better. I proved to myself I can actually do it. And it's good.
"Everything is good."
Contact Marc Topkin at [email protected]. Follow @TBTimes_Rays.