TORONTO — The Rays had plenty to feel bad about Sunday: a frustrating 1-0 loss that was their fifth straight and dropped them 2½ games behind the Yankees, who beat the Red Sox; another team mark for futility tied with 17 strikeouts; and concerning news that two starting pitchers were sent home for tests on their sore shoulders.
But illustrative of just how tough a stretch it has been, there was actually something they were relieved, even happy about: avoiding being no-hit for a record third time this season when Evan Longoria singled off Toronto's Brandon Morrow (and actually off diving second baseman Aaron Hill's glove) with two outs in the ninth inning.
"It's almost like we got a victory in one way; we got one hit," shortstop Jason Bartlett said. "It's sad, but … "
But … that's how badly things have been going.
That the Rays (67-44) are still in the AL East chase, and leading the wild-card race (though only by 41/2 games), is a product of their fast start and a testament to usually solid pitching and defense. Because their lack of offense continues to be a major issue that may yet prove to be their undoing.
Being no-hit for a third time in a span of 81 games would actually have been more of a novelty. The bigger issue is how a team that ranks third in the majors in runs (555, 5 per game) can be so remarkably inconsistent, scoring two or fewer runs in nearly one-quarter of its games, 27 of 111. Or to a different extreme: of the nine games in the AL in which a team had one or no hits, the Rays have been in five of them.
"It's a strange equation that we're working," manager Joe Maddon said. "We are kinda like that, a little bit schizophrenic offensively. But I love my guys, and I know they can do it."
The primary problem is the frequency in which they strike out, Sunday's team record-tying 17 pushing their AL-leading total to 881 (nearly eight per game), a primary reason they rank near the bottom of the majors with a .250 team average.
The solution, at this late date? Get the hitters they have to do better or find a better hitter (Jose Guillen?) to bring in.
"Of course, you're always looking to improve yourself externally, but I do believe the guys that are here can carry this, that we can do better," Maddon said. "We've been striking out way too much. If there's anything I'd like to see us do, it's cut that number down. And I think just by doing that, you're going to see better results offensively."
The theory is that better things can happen when they put the ball in play, but Sunday wasn't a good tutorial, as they went down early and often (eight of the first 14) against Morrow, the former Mariner who kept them off-balance and off their game with a combination of pinpoint fastball control and a devastating slider.
"If anybody deserved a no-hitter, it was him today," Longoria said. "It was one of those days when you go up to the plate, and I hate to say it, but you feel like, this guy's making his pitches all day, what chance do we have right now?"
They didn't have many before Longoria's single, Ben Zobrist's sixth-inning drive to center that Vernon Wells grabbed as he leaped into the wall their best shot. They did have three prior baserunners at least, Dan Johnson walking in the second and reaching on an error in the third and Zobrist walking with one out in the ninth.
With two down — and, lost amid the drama and roaring crowd of 22,213, the tying run on first — Longoria, despite a 9-for-58 skid, was determined. He took a ball, fouled off a four-seam fastball and — when he saw Morrow shake off the sign from catcher Jose Molina — guessed right that he'd get the same fastball away again and slapped it to the right side, Hill diving and getting his glove on it but unable to hang on.
As frustrating as it was when Johnson struck out to end the game on Morrow's 137th pitch, the Rays were still very much relieved not to be part of more history they want no part of.
"Definitely," B.J. Upton said.
"If someone tells you otherwise," Bartlett said, "they're lying."
Marc Topkin can be reached at email@example.com.