ST. PETERSBURG — For the second game in a row, the Rays had a chance to pull out a key victory late. And for the second game in a row, the bullpen let them down.
Former closer Grant Balfour surrendered three runs in the ninth inning of Friday's 8-5 loss to the Blue Jays, sending the Rays (42-53) back to last place in the AL East.
"I just didn't make the pitches," Balfour said. "That's pretty much just awful on my part."
Balfour's struggle capped off an up-and-down night for the Rays, who watched Chris Archer's night go from dominant to dicey and saw an offense get nine hits off of All-Star Mark Buehrle but continue its season-long troubles with the bases loaded.
Archer struck out five of the first six batters he faced and needed only 26 pitches to get through his first two perfect innings.
"He was definitely in command of the game early," manager Joe Maddon said.
Maddon was at a loss to describe what happened next, in front of a crowd of 17,533 at Tropicana Field. Archer gave up five runs and five hits in the next two innings as his velocity dropped.
One beneficiary was former Ray Dan Johnson. Playing in his first game at Tropicana Field since his pinch-hit home run in Game 162 of the 2011 season, he scored three runs and walked in all four plate appearances. He and Nolan Reimold drew early walks in the fourth that turned into runs.
"I think it was the difference in the game," said Archer, whose five-inning start snapped a stretch of three in a row where he lasted at least seven.
His offense eventually bailed him out. The Rays loaded the bases with no outs in the first but left with only one run, off Evan Longoria's sacrifice fly. Ben Zobrist flied out with the bases loaded in the next inning, too, dropping the Rays to a league-worst 11-for-66 in that situation.
"We just could not finish the deal," Maddon said.
Sean Rodriguez's tying, three-run home run in the seventh brought the Rays back before the bullpen's collapse — their second in a row after giving up a three-run home run to the Royals on Wednesday.
Balfour — who had allowed only two runs in his previous 12 appearances — got into trouble immediately with a four-pitch walk to Johnson.
"It came down to the leadoff walk," Maddon said.
Balfour used three pitches to strike out Juan Francisco but fell apart after that. Steve Tolleson hit a two-run flare to right out of Zobrist's reach, and Jose Bautista blooped an RBI single to right on slider down and away.
Balfour said those pitches weren't the problem. Those were solid throws off the plate that simply ended in well-placed hits. The issue was that first walk, which spiraled into the Rays' third loss in their last four games.
"It was really embarrassing really to go out there and do that," Balfour said. "I know I'm a lot better than that. I take full responsibility. I take the loss on my shoulders."
Contact Matt Baker at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @MBakerTBTimes.