ST. PETERSBURG — The gains the Rays made with Monday's win over the Rangers were quickly erased with Tuesday's ugly 7-1 loss, as Jeremy Hellickson failed them again.
As up and down, thrilling and threatening, promising and pitiful as the season has been, the Rays knew better than to think there would be clarity in the final weeks, that it would be just as unlikely they would get run out of the race as they would run the table.
"Of course, that's what I'm anticipating," manager Joe Maddon said. "I'm not anticipating us to just go out there and do Minnesota Fats. I don't see it. It's just going to be back and forth, and you've got to do deal with it."
The loss dropped the Rays to 82-68 and back into a tie for the American League wild-cards spots with the Rangers, who had lost seven straight, with 12 games to play. The Indians won to stay within a half-game, and the Orioles did also to remain two back. The Royals and Yankees both lost and dropped to 3½ out.
Hellickson had made two encouraging starts since his one-week forced respite, but Tuesday it became clear early — giving up a homer on the first pitch — he was not sharp, and Maddon decided during a four-run third that he had seen enough after 40 pitches.
"It's really frustrating to go out there and do that after the big win we had (Monday) night," Hellickson said. "The way (Alex) Cobb threw, you want to go out there and do the same thing. It's very frustrating, but at the same time you have to move on."
Maddon acted then because he felt the Rays had a chance to come back, especially since the Rangers had spot-started Alexi Ogando, planning a parade of relievers behind him.
But Ogando lasted five strong innings, and the Rays weren't up to the challenge, managing four hits for the night before another tiny Tropicana Field gathering of 10,786, an increase of exactly 62 — 0.6 percent — over Monday's crowd that was ridiculed nationally.
"The pitcher was better than we were today," centerfielder Desmond Jennings said.
The Rays, basically, had one chance to get back in the game as Jose Lobaton homered with one out in the third, then Yunel Escobar walked and Ben Zobrist singled.
"A pretty good, nice little moment — two on, one out, 2-3 coming up," Maddon said. "To have done something there could have put a different hue on the game."
But outfielder Wil Myers, who has been among the hottest and most productive Rays, showed his rookie-ness, swinging at the first pitch and popping up to shallow right. Maddon said he had absolutely no problem with Myers' aggressiveness in that situation: "I don't want to put any governors on him when it comes to swinging the bat because he can do damage at any point."
Then James Loney quickly got behind 0-and-2, and after a wild pitch moved the runners to third and second, he swung at the next pitch and grounded out.
Hellickson had no explanation for his latest rough outing, saying he felt good physically but had bad command of his fastball, obvious in how hitters he had done well against hurt him. It was obvious when he gave up the leadoff homer to Kinsler, giving the Rangers their first homer, and first lead, in more than a week. "Just didn't start off right," Hellickson said.
He retired the next six but made a mess of the third inning. He walked Mitch Moreland, allowed a double to No. 9 hitter Leonys Martin and a two-run single to Kinsler (who had been 2-for-10 against him) then, after falling behind 3-and-0, gave up a two-run homer to Elvis Andrus (who had been 1-for-11 against him).
"For Hellickson, it just wasn't happening tonight," Maddon said.
Nor for the rest of them.