ST. PETERSBURG — The Rays were poised to be poised to celebrate.
Three outs from a Thursday night victory that would have put them in position to clinch their first-ever playoff berth with a win tonight, and with Evan Longoria's three homers topping a lengthy list of highlights, they let it all get away.
A sloppy ninth inning led to a deflating 11-8 loss to the Twins and likely delayed their long-awaited coronation, and celebration, of making the American League playoffs field until at least Saturday. (There is one scenario in which the Rays could still clinch tonight, according to the Elias Sports Bureau, but they would have to win and the White Sox, Yankees and Blue Jays would all have to lose.) Plus, their East lead over idle Boston was reduced to 1½ games.
"That was an oddity tonight," Rays manager Joe Maddon said. "Normally when we get to that point in the game, we figure out how to win it, and they took it away from us tonight."
It was only the second time in 79 games the Rays (90-61) lost when taking a lead into the ninth, but they insist it wasn't because they were looking to what lies ahead.
"I don't feel that," Longoria said. "I think we're still doing a good job keeping it one day at a time."
And it's not as if the pesky Twins don't have something to play for as they moved within 1½ games of the AL Central-leading White Sox.
Plus, as Tampa native and Twins outfielder Denard Span said: "I don't want them to clinch on us. I don't want them to jump around while we're in town. We're going to do our best to try to prevent that."
Longoria's three home runs, making him the major-league rookie leader with 25, looked to be the headline on a big night that included an intriguing relief appearance by David Price (two on in the seventh with three lefties coming up) and an effective return by Troy Percival (one inning, one hit, one strikeout, 26 pitches).
The Rays, who scored five in the first, took an 8-6 lead into the ninth, but it disappeared quickly with Dan Wheeler on the mound.
Span, playing at home for the first time as a big-leaguer, led off with a single that barely left the infield ("A little bad luck," Wheeler said) and Alexi Casilla whacked a first-pitch fastball ("Couldn't quite put it in a better spot," Wheeler said) for the tying homer.
"That was just a difficult one to swallow," said Wheeler, who blew his fifth save in 16 opportunities.
It got worse from there, as rookie centerfielder Fernando Perez misplayed Joe Mauer's fly ball into a double. After an intentional walk of Justin Morneau and a change to reliever Trever Miller, the Twins used the rarely successful slug bunt — Adam Everett showing bunt, waiting for the Rays infielders to move then swinging away — and doubled over leftfielder Ben Zobrist's head to score the go-ahead run.
Everett said he saw the infield was open and, given the option by manager Ron Gardenhire, decided to take his shot.
Longoria noticed that Everett noticed. "I had a feeling he was going to pull it back just because I felt like they were on to our play," Longoria said.
Ex-Ray Delmon Young got in on it, too, dumping a single into right to make it 10-8, and the Twins added another to complete their five-run ninth.
It was a blue night for all Rays — starter James Shields, who despite a rocky first inning was in line for this team-record-tying 14th win of the season; Carlos Pena, who hit his 30th home run; and Longoria, who joined Jonny Gomes as the only Rays to hit three homers in one game.
"That's a tough way to go," Longoria said.
"But we do a good job bouncing back, and we'll be back (tonight)."
And try it all again.
The Rays haven't — yet – started selling postseason tickets. But they are offering fans a chance to win the chance to buy tickets to AL Division Series games in a special online presale.
To register, go to raysbaseball.com and click on the Postseason Ticket Opportunity box before 11:59 p.m. Sunday.
Registration is free; the Rays didn't say how many winners will be selected.
Fans can also guarantee postseason ticket availability by making deposits on 2009 season tickets.
Marc Topkin, Times staff writer