OAKLAND, Calif. — In talking before Monday's games about the potential for trades and the confidence he still had in his current squad, manager Joe Maddon essentially conceded the division race but said he felt — "very, very strongly" — that the Rays were "still a team that can get into the playoffs this year."
But by the end of the long night, that seemed an increasingly unlikely possibility as well, as the Rays turned another game they seemed to have in hand into a staggering defeat, 7-5 to Oakland.
And in the process, they fell to 53-48 and dropped 7½ games behind the wild-card leading Yankees (and stayed 9½ behind the first-place Red Sox), which could accelerate their effort to make trades, and expand the pool of candidates, before the Sunday deadline for nonwaiver deals as their postseason hopes diminish.
"We know it, man,'' said reliever J.P. Howell, who took the loss. "We've got to be close enough. We play the Red Sox and Yankees a bunch of times coming up, but we've got to win these games. We've just got to keep truckin' and going. The more we lose, the more steep a hill we're building for ourselves. And you don't want to do that. Especially with time ticking like it is right now.''
The Rays led 5-2 after their sixth, getting home runs from Ben Zobrist and Kelly Shoppach, an RBI double by impressive rookie Desmond Jennings and a two-run go-ahead triple by B.J. Upton, who seems the mostly likely to go by Sunday.
But the bullpen, pressed into extra duty after an unimpressive five-plus inning outing by Jeremy Hellickson, failed again. And it was a team effort, with Brandon Gomes, Howell, Joel Peralta and Cesar Ramos all contributing to the losing effort as the game dragged until nearly 1:45 a.m. Tampa Bay time. They've lost nine of their last 13, and 14 of 23.
"We had a chance, we had a really good chance, to win that game. And we did not,'' Maddon said. "We did a lot of good things. … Overall it was not a bad game. We just can not give up that kind of a lead.''
In their past nine games, Rays relievers are 0-4 with a 5.16 ERA and have walked 28 in 29? innings. Maddon said though recovered physically, they could still be feeling the effects of the 16-inning July 17 marathon with Boston and the resulting impact on their usage.
"We've done some good things and we've done some not-so-good things,'' Maddon said.
Hellickson's short outing was the real problem Monday, as he forced Maddon to use more relievers for longer than he wanted. Hellickson threw too many pitches early — 70 in the first three innings — that Maddon couldn't let him go any deeper than one batter into the sixth, finishing with 106.
That wasn't much different than his last start, when he threw 66 in the first three innings against the Yankees, though he tightened up and worked seven, totaling 119.
"I've had a few games like this,'' Hellickson said. "I've tried to nibble a little bit too much and I end up throwing too many pitches and walking guys and going as deep as I'd like to.''
After David DeJesus doubled on Hellickson's 106th and final pitch, Gomes allowed him to come around in the sixth, making it 5-3.
The seventh was much worse, as Howell and Peralta combined to give up three runs. Howell allowed a one-out single to Hideki Matsui, a walk to Josh Willingham and an RBI single to DeJesus. Peralta didn't provide much relief, giving up a two-run double to Conor Jackson.
Ramos started the eighth with a walk, then allowed an RBI double to Coco Crisp.
The game was 2-2 when the Rays scored twice in the fifth.
Johnny Damon, booed by some of the crowd of 11,053, led off with a double, his 505th to tie Tony Perez for 48th all time. After an Evan Longoria walk, Matt Joyce fielder's choice grounder and a throwing error by second baseman Jemile Weeks, Upton, the subject of extensive trade rumors, delivered what could be a loud farewell, a shot that eluded Crisp and hit the wall for a two-run triple.
The Rays took a 1-0 lead in the first on Zobrist's home run, though the A's responded with Cliff Pennington's two-run shot with two out in the second. The Rays tied it when Sean Rodriguez led off the third with a single and scored on Jennings' double. That was Jennings' fourth extra-base hit in his first three games, more than three members of the Rays opening day lineup had for their seasons — Reid Brignac (three), Dan Johnson (two), Manny Ramirez (none).
The Rays went on to load the bases when Zobrist and Longoria walked (one of his career-high four), and that, as is their wont, turned out badly as Joyce flied out and Upton grounded out. That extended their streak of bases-loaded futility to 0-for-their-last-13, and dropped their AL-worst average to .206.
The game was played in cooler — and by the end actually chilly — temperatures, a welcome respite from the Kansas City heat. First pitch Monday was 63 degrees; Saturday was 101.
The A's were the only AL team the Rays had not faced, and Monday's game was the first of seven in an 11-day window.
Marc Topkin can be reached at [email protected]