NEW YORK — Without a true closer in his bullpen, Rays manager Joe Maddon faces a daily challenge of trying to match up his relievers with the opposing hitters.
And some days, like Sunday, nothing seems to work as another bullpen blowup — plus a critical error by third baseman Willy Aybar — turned a two-run eight-inning lead into a frustrating 4-3 loss.
Maddon put a lot of it on the explosive lineup in Yankees pinstripes, saying it is difficult for any team to match up with. But it has as much to do with the structure of the Rays' semiflammable bullpen and the built-in instability of having no set roles. That flaw is likely to continue unless they unexpectedly acquire a closer or find/convert one from within their ranks, or even more unexpectedly Troy Percival comes back healthy.
"This is what we have and this is who we are and I'm not crying about it," Maddon said. "I think a lot of our guys can get the last out in the group, and they've proven that already this year. We let one get away today. (The Yankees) are difficult to match up with. They just are. Very unusual."
The Rays, who slipped back to .500 at 29-29, took a 3-1 lead into the eighth on big hits by B.J. Upton and Gabe Gross, a good-but-not-great five-inning start by Matt Garza and two clean frames by reliever Joe Nelson.
But then the trouble started. By the time it ended, after three walks, two singles, Aybar's error and a slow bouncer, the Yankees had three runs and, after Mariano Rivera was again Mariano Rivera in the ninth, their AL-high 11th win in their last at-bat. The Rays lost for the seventh time when tied or leading after seven innings.
"One of those you swallow and move on," reliever J.P. Howell said.
Grant Balfour got the first out, then gave up singles to Johnny Damon and Mark Teixeira. Worse, he fell behind Alex Rodriguez 2-and-0 — on one of several ball calls by fill-in umpire Scott Barry that seemed in question — and walked A-Rod to load the bases.
"I felt like I pitched him tough," Balfour said. "I tried to pitch smart, tried to get a ground ball with a slider. I tried to get a double play to get out of the inning."
"Really the big at-bat of the inning," Maddon said.
Howell was next, and he walked Robinson Cano on five pitches to force in one run. Howell got Jorge Posada to hit the ground ball he wanted for an inning-ending double play, but Aybar booted it, making it a tie game with the bases still loaded. Hideki Matsui followed with a slow bouncer to second, and Ben Zobrist could only get one out on the tag as Rodriguez scored the go-ahead run.
"Some tough breaks," Howell said.
Having to go by matchups each game, Maddon can't really put the relievers in set roles, which affects how and who he uses in the seventh and eighth innings and adds to the degree of difficulty for the group.
"Last year felt like we all sort of went in order and we knew," Balfour said. "This year it's kind of different. It's one of those things where you really never know, a could-be-anyone kind of thing.''
"It may be tougher," Howell said, "but at the same time it's definitely doable. It's definitely doable with the guys we have, and you have to adapt to the situation. You look at our situation and that's the way I think it has to be right now. Once we accept that, I think it gets easier."
Maybe. But it definitely gets later.
Marc Topkin can be reached at [email protected]ptimes.com.