KANSAS CITY, Mo. — The return of shortstop Jason Bartlett was a definite gain for the Rays on Thursday, as he started a dazzling double play and rapped three hits in his first game in more than three weeks.
But the rest of the night was a total loss.
Bad enough was a 4-2 defeat to a struggling Royals squad that was just swept by Detroit by a cumulative score of 33-6.
More significant was what it meant, as the Rays (59-42) lost an important opportunity to widen their American League East lead over the idle Red Sox and Yankees, who open a key weekend series tonight in Boston, and instead are ahead by .0016 percentage points (and one game in the loss column).
Also wasted was the chance to shake questions about their poor performance away from home, as they've lost seven straight road games (since last winning June 29 in Pittsburgh) and are now 19-26, compared to 40-16 at home.
More concerning was how it happened, as the offense was feeble yet again, and starter Matt Garza was so off his usual game that manager Joe Maddon wondered if he was hurt (he said he wasn't).
"We didn't take advantage of our opportunities," Maddon said.
The lack of offense has been an ongoing, and increasing, concern, as the Rays have scored only 36 runs in their last 14 games and hit .210, including 13-for-99 (.131) with runners in scoring position.
"I think everybody's trying to get it done all at once," Maddon said. "Let's see if we could bunch some hits up and get more on a line and hard on the ground as opposed to fly balls. … More than anything, I'd just like to see us get back to our line-drive approach, and it's going to happen."
What made it even more frustrating Thursday was that they had their chances early against Gil Meche. They had two on in the first two innings and couldn't convert, and failed to take advantage of Meche throwing 73 pitches in the first four innings (31 in the first alone), allowing him to throw just 27 over the next three and leave unscarred.
"Just listening to what guys say when they come back (to the dugout), they're missing pitches," Bartlett said. "Granted he threw well tonight, but we're also missing a lot of pitches. It's never fun when you get a good pitch to hit and you don't hit it. I think we've just got to relax, and it's going to turn around."
Garza, coming off a strong outing against Toronto, didn't know what was wrong. He just knew he wasn't right.
His command was noticeably off (only 46 of his 82 pitches were strikes), and his velocity down a few miles an hour (from 94 to 91), and Maddon decided five innings was enough.
"I don't want to say I was out of it, I just felt kind of out of whack," Garza said. "It was weird. I couldn't find a rhythm."
Garza was most disappointed about walking a career-high-matching four, but more defining was that for the first time in 45 major-league games he didn't have any strikeouts.
"I just felt like I had no giddy-up on my fastball, no drive, and it kind of threw off my timing on a lot of other pitches," he said. "I just felt weird out there."
Marc Topkin can be reached at [email protected]