OAKLAND, Calif. — Grant Balfour stood at his locker, talking at first as much to himself as the small group reporters, putting on odd finish on what had already been a weird night, the Rays losing 3-2 in 10 innings to the best-in-baseball A's.
"What am I going to say right now?" Balfour asked aloud. "All the things I'm not supposed to say, or the things you want to hear? … What do you want out of me? You want the truth? Or just want hear whatever you (expletive deleted) want to hear?"
Balfour had just blown another game, allowing the winning run on an 0-2 single by Derek Norris with two outs and the bases loaded, scoring former Ray Sam Fuld, who reached on an 0-2 single, with two walks in between.
But there also was a checked swing called on what would have been strike three on Josh Donaldson that wasn't called the Rays' way — leading to manager Joe Maddon's ejection, and blasting of the umps — and a popup that dropped in foul territory between Rays first baseman Sean Rodriguez and rightfielder Kevin Kiermaier, both extending the at-bat that led to the bases-loading walk.
And after answering the first three questions by saying some version of, "I got beat tonight by a good team, that's it," Balfour finally said something else:
"It's tough when you've got to get five outs sometimes. That's all I'll say. I got beat by a good team and it's tough when you've got to get five outs."
Whether he should have been assigning blame or shouldering it, Balfour made the point that summed up a night when the Rays indeed made it very tough on themselves throughout.
Starter Alex Cobb was not sharp, loading the bases in the first two innings and teetering throughout his 5⅔ innings, and the pitchers walked seven overall. The hitters went 1-for-10 with runners in scoring position, wasting repeated opportunities, most damaging in the ninth when their failures included a botched safety squeeze.
So in losing another game they had plenty of chances to win, they also lost another game in the standings, dropping to 54-58 and 9½ games behind the American League East-leading Orioles, 5½ behind the idle Blue Jays for the second American League wild card.
"You've got to do all the little things well to beat these guys right now," Maddon said. "But I'm here to tell you, we're as good as they are. I'm not going to back down from that. I truly believe that. I know the record doesn't reflect that, but we're as good as this team is, and they have a pretty good record. So we've got to prove it on the field. We've got to come back (Tuesday) ready, and we still have a chance to take the series."
Though Cobb was battling himself all night — "The whole game was a struggle," he said, with no clue of the cause — the Rays found themselves tied 2-2 from the sixth on against an A's team with three former Rays in the starting lineup (Fuld, John Jaso and Stephen Vogt) and a fourth who pinch-hit (Jonny Gomes). Evan Longoria homered in the third, and Desmond Jennings singled in Kevin Kiermaier in the fifth for their runs.
They had a prime opportunity in the ninth to at least go ahead, with Sean Rodriguez — who pinch ran after James Loney's leadoff single, and moved up on a bunt — on second with one out, but failed twice.
Rodriguez missed a chance to score when Oakland shortstop Jed Lowrie booted Yunel Escobar's grounder and it bounced behind him, but Rodriguez, unsure where the ball was, stopped at third.
Maddon said it was a bit of "an awkward play" for either Rodriguez or third base coach Tom Foley to make a quick decision because it's "one of those things where the ball kind of disappears" as it goes behind Lowrie. "I don't know that everyone knows where the ball is quickly," he said.
Rodriguez said he couldn't tell at the time — "It's a read that's tough to make" — but after looking at the replay he should have gone for it. "I told myself if I would have kept going I would have made it," he said. "Two outs, it's worth a shot; with one out, it's tough to say."
The Rays still had runners at first and third with one out, and Maddon sent up one of his best bunters, Brandon Guyer, to take one swing then try their signature safety squeeze play. Guyer reached for a Sean Doolittle pitch that was too high and bunted it right back to the mound, and Doolittle flipped to Norris to get Rodriguez.
Though Guyer's effort was admirable, his decision was bad. "The point is to take it," Maddon said. "You don't have to bunt it. That's part of the play."
Maddon came out of the dugout to consider challenging the tag, but didn't take a shot at a review of whether Norris may have improperly blocked the plate, a rule that has been confusing and enforced somewhat ambiguously. "Honestly, I didn't think about that," he said.
The Rays finally did themselves in in the 10th, an inning that started oddly as Balfour, who spent the previous three seasons with the A's, was introduced and the fans in the rightfield seats did the "rage" dance they did during his time with them in tribute. (Or maybe they were just celebrating early knowing he's been struggling.)
Fuld started the inning with a one-out single on an 0-2 pitch, then stole second, followed b another ex-Ray, John Jaso, walking.
It was during Donaldson's at-bat, on a check-swing on a potential strike three that instead became ball three that Maddon was ejected by first-base umpire Quinn Wolcott.
Maddon was tossed before he got out of the dugout as Wolcott held a hand toward him as a sign to not proceed, but at that point Maddon wanted to have his say, telling reporters later it was a call that was both "absolutely blown" and "egregiously bad" and could have changed the outcome of the entire game.
"That's not borderline, that was egregious," Maddon said. "And that's what I had a problem with. I'd been patient all night with a lot of stuff. Some of the umpires in this particular crew you have to be patient with. My patience ran out at that particular point. That call was inappropriate. I know he's a young umpire; hopefully he learned something from it."
It was only worse that moments later Rodriguez went racing back and Kiermaier came charging in and a foul ball that would have been the second out dropped between them as both seemed to think the other may have had the better shot.
Said Rodriguez: "I didn't know if I was going to get to it or not. We were both kind of there. It's hard to say if one of us takes charge, maybe, I don't know."
Said Kiermaier: "It's just one of those ones in-between where — gosh, it stinks — I don't know I could have gotten to it."
Donaldson walked instead to load the bases. The Rays went to the five-man infield but Balfour struck out Brandon Moss for the second out — or by his count, the fourth, given the uncalled third strike and the uncaught pop-up. Balfour got ahead of Norris 0-2, then gave up a ground ball single that scored the game-winner.
"Two 0-2 hits and two walks," Maddon said. "That's classically not what you want to see."
On this night, there was plenty that fit that category.
Contact Marc Topkin at [email protected] Follow @TBTimes_Rays.