DETROIT — The Rays lost another close game, this one 6-3 to the Tigers on Monday, but it didn't have to be that way.
"Obviously," Johnny Damon said, "we wish things could have been different."
They could have been if Damon's game-ending smash had been a couple of inches higher or wider and gotten by Tigers first baseman Miguel Cabrera to score two and put Damon on second — "third," he said — as the tying run.
Or if catcher Kelly Shoppach had been closer to the plate and able to tag Brennan Boesch on what looked like a good-enough throw from Matt Joyce to prevent the Tigers from taking a 2-1 lead in the sixth.
Or if the Rays had been more successful with their early opportunities, specifically bases loaded with one out in the fourth against a reliever making an unexpected big-league debut. But neither Felipe Lopez nor Shoppach could even put the ball in play.
"A lot of that game was lost for us early on when we had opportunities to score and did not," manager Joe Maddon said. "If you're able to do that then you do things differently toward the end of the game that could have averted them scoring those extra runs."
What that means is that if the Rays had the lead, then Juan Cruz wouldn't have been in the game when the Tigers broke it open with four in the eighth.
The loss was the Rays' seventh in 10 games and dropped them to 26-22 overall, though they hung on to their share of first place in the AL East.
They also lost shortstop Elliot Johnson, who will be out at least a few days with a left knee sprain.
Jeremy Hellickson failed in his bid to become the first Rays rookie to win five consecutive starts, but he didn't pitch badly, allowing two runs on four hits and four walks over 61/3 while throwing 100 pitches.
"He pitched great," Maddon said.
He gave up the tying run in the fifth, on a leadoff homer by outfielder Andy Dirks, a 25-year-old who made his major-league debut last week.
The Tigers took the lead the next inning, but it was more of a team effort by the Rays. Hellickson got two quick outs then gave up a double, on an 0-and-1 pitch, to Boesch. Maddon had Hellickson pitch to always dangerous Miguel Cabrera, which had as much to do with having Victor Martinez, who came in with his MLB-best .384 career average against the Rays, next in the order.
Cabrera delivered a crisp single to right, and third-base coach Gene Lamont decided to force the action by sending Boesch.
Joyce, who just came in as a result of Johnson's departure, made what looked to be a strong enough throw, though slightly off the mark. Shoppach appeared positioned in front of the plate — enough so that Maddon asked him about it afterward — and Boesch went around him, diving and swiping the plate.
Shoppach, though, said he was in the right spot and the throw was a little bit up the line. "I really thought he was going to be out by a bunch," he said. "But when I turned around he was already gone, and I couldn't reach him."
The key moment seemed to be in the fourth, when Lopez and Shoppach went down swinging against debuting lefty Charlie Furbush, who replaced injured starter Phil Coke. "You've just got to be able to move the ball, give yourself a chance to score," Maddon said. "We have to do a better job of scoring runs when we get opportunities. We haven't been very good at that."