SEATTLE — As inconsistent as everything else has been in their down-and-up-and-down season, the Rays had taken great comfort in expecting solid starts every time James Shields took the mound.
Until Thursday night.
Shields lasted only four innings while doing something even more unexpected, allowing four homers to the Mariners, who hadn't gone deep four times in a home game in nearly four years.
"I didn't do a very good job,'' Shields said.
Combined with the expected weak offensive showing against Seattle's Cy Young-winning ace Felix Hernandez, the Rays took a rocky first step on their 12-day country-crossing journey, losing to the Mariners 8-2.
That makes it nine losses in their past 13 games, and 12 of 18 since they were a season-high eight games over .500 at 23-15, as they dropped to 29-27.
The game was billed as a prime pitching pairing. Hernandez held the Rays to one run on five hits while striking out 11 during his seven innings, but Shields failed to live up to his end.
"I didn't see that one coming," Rays manager Joe Maddon said. "He's been so money. The Mariners are a nice ballclub, but they're not known right now for those kind of outbursts. Based on what he had been doing, that kind of surprised me a bit.''
After a 1-2-3 first inning, Shields allowed a five-run second — his worst inning since September — including home runs to DH Jack Cust and No. 9 hitting-leftfielder Carlos Peguero, whose spot in the lineup has been in question given his 0-for-14 skid, .169 average, two homers and eight RBIs he had entering the game. (Another error, this one by shaky fill-in first baseman Felipe Lopez, hurt, too.)
"I didn't do a good job of damage control in the second inning,'' Shields said.
As if that inning wasn't bad enough, Shields allowed a run in the third after uncharacteristic back-to-back walks, then two more on homers in the fourth — by Peguero, the 24-year-old who played last season at Double A, and Justin Smoak.
Shields said the problem was that he left too many pitches up. Maddon said he thought Shields was overthrowing and didn't have his usual good command. Catcher Kelly Shoppach pinned it on inconsistencies in Shields' delivery.
"I've got to get better and move on,'' Shields said. "That's unacceptable.''
Shields hadn't allowed four homers in a game since his major-league-record-tying six-pack of bombs in August in Toronto. (He had allowed only eight in his first 11 starts, and five over the past nine.) The Mariners hadn't hit four in a game at spacious Safeco Field since June 23, 2007, vs. Cincinnati.
Shields had made nine consecutive quality starts — six or more innings, three or fewer runs — and had gone at least seven innings an AL-best 10 times, including a major-league-most nine straight.
But Thursday, on a crisp night in the Pacific Northwest, he lasted just four, allowing eight runs (seven earned) to inflate his ERA from 2.15, which was third best in the AL, to 2.77. Compounding the problem, he forced the Rays to get four innings out of their bullpen, which was already down a man and certainly seeking to conserve assets for tonight when Andy Sonnanstine is starting, though Juan Cruz mitigated the damage by working three of the innings, his longest outing since 2007.
Essentially, Shoppach said, Shields was due.
"We can't expect this guy to throw a shutout and throw nine innings every time,'' Shoppach said. "As good as he's been, as well as he's thrown the ball this year, did we think that he'd go the whole season without giving up a five-spot? Sure, we'd love to say that, but this is a hard game to play.''
About the only positive for the Rays was the eighth-inning homer by Matt Joyce off lefty reliever Aaron Laffey. It was Joyce's third in his past 13 at-bats against southpaws, and his 10th overall.
The Rays didn't figure to do much against Hernandez, with Maddon acknowledging afterward that their best hope was to win 2-1 or 3-2, and he manipulated his lineup accordingly to try to maximize its chances. That meant moving Joyce, the majors' leading hitter (now at .364), into the No. 2 spot, for the first time since he was a Tiger in 2008, and dropping Johnny Damon into the cleanup spot for the first time since he was a Royal, in 1999. Ben Zobrist hit first and Evan Longoria third.
Those four combined to get on base six times (four hits and two walks), but Hernandez was still too much as the Mariners improved to 7-0 in games he starts against the Rays at home.
How good was he?
"What a question,'' Shoppach said. "Well, we knocked him out after seven (innings) and 11 punchouts, so ... "