ST. PETERSBURG — The scene was set for a letdown Friday night.
The Rays, coming off an emotional, three-game sweep of the best-in-the-majors Cubs in front of near-sellout crowds, hosted an Astros club that had lost eight straight.
With the Rays' recent stretch of facing several first-place teams, Houston (34-40) became the first opponent to begin a series at the Trop under .500 since the Yankees on April 14.
The dome went from frenzied to half full, and Tampa Bay's defense dropped off a bit as well in a 4-3 loss in front of a subdued crowd of 14,171, more than 20,000 less than the night before.
But after the Rays (43-30) scored a run apiece in the last two innings to make it interesting, manager Joe Maddon felt it was more Astros ace Roy Oswalt shutting them down than his team letting down from its spectacular sweep.
Oswalt kept the Rays off balance with his off-speed command, giving up just two earned runs in 7⅔ innings; Tampa Bay remains 1½ games behind Boston in the AL East.
"It's contingent on pitching — if their guy wasn't that good tonight, I'm sure we would have been able to maintain our apparent intensity," Maddon said. "You always look at the pitching when the game begins and that pretty much sets the tone. …We just couldn't break through on him tonight."
To Maddon, the Rays pitched well enough to win. For his second straight start, Matt Garza (5-4) was in control of his pitches — and his emotions. "I'm taking baby steps every day," he said. The 24-year-old right-hander kept his composure in the first, when the Astros scored two with two outs. Miguel Tejada started it with a hit, Lance Berkman walked and Carlos Lee doubled them in.
Garza had strong command, striking out eight and walking two in six innings. But the Astros got well-placed hits at the right times.
"I thought he threw exceptionally well," Maddon said. "The last two games I've been really pleased — it's all about the process, and the process was really good today. … How he went about his business was exactly what we're looking for."
The Rays bats were relatively silent. Eric Hinske delivered RBI singles in the first and eighth. The best chance to crack Oswalt (6-7) was in the eighth, when the Rays had runners on first and second and two out for Cliff Floyd. But Doug Brocail replaced Oswalt, and Floyd grounded out to first.
"Those guys have been playing really well and they've been hitting the ball well," Astros manager Cecil Cooper said of the Rays. "But good pitching always stops good hitting."
The Rays defense, which has sparkled during their run, had a few hiccups for their first two-error game since June 8. Rookie third baseman Evan Longoria couldn't corral a Tejada grounder in the fifth. And in the eighth, Hinske's fielding error in right allowed Lee to advance to third after a double.
"I love the idea that the expectation level has been so high," Maddon said. "We don't want to make those mistakes, we don't expect to make those mistakes, we don't like making those mistakes. By (today), I'm sure they'll be flushed out of our system and we'll be fine."
Joe Smith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org