ST. PETERSBURG — The Rays haven't been playing well, and they certainly aren't at full strength.
Perfect time to face the first-place Yankees, right?
Tampa Bay certainly has plenty of ground to make up, having lost 5-3 to the Tigers on Sunday afternoon — its ninth loss in its past 12 — to drop 7½ games behind New York in the American League East.
But the resilient Rays see the three-game series with the Yankees, which starts tonight at Tropicana Field, as an opportunity to quickly flip the script.
"It's been a really tough last couple of weeks; we need to turn it around," Ben Zobrist said. "That's what we've got to do. The Yankees coming in is the perfect time to do it."
The Rays (41-38) will need a better performance than Sunday, when starter Alex Cobb got in too many bases-loaded jams, the defense made another error and the scuffling offense saw a rally cut short by a baserunning gaffe.
"At some point you have to cover your mistakes a little bit with your offense — we haven't been able to do that," manager Joe Maddon said.
Tampa Bay was held hitless through four innings by Tigers lefty Drew Smyly but manufactured a run in the first inning. Desmond Jennings led off with a walk, stole second, advanced to third on a wild pitch and scored on B.J. Upton's sacrifice fly.
But Cobb, who looked good early, loaded the bases with no outs in the fourth and fifth innings, though Maddon said his defense "created" the jam in the fourth. With a runner on first, third baseman Brooks Conrad failed to get even a force at second when trying to field Delmon Young's chopper to his left, putting runners on first and second.
In each situation, Cobb minimized the damage, allowing three combined runs over the two innings.
But Cobb lamented the fact that after the Rays rallied to tie it at 3 in the fifth, thanks to an RBI single by Hideki Matsui and an RBI double by Jose Molina, he gave it right back in the sixth.
Cobb allowed a leadoff double to Don Kelly, who moved to third on a sacrifice bunt and scored on an Austin Jackson single past a drawn-in infield, giving the Tigers the lead for good.
"It's tough to swallow," Cobb said.
Maddon said Cobb, who allowed five runs over 5⅓ innings, wasn't bad, but "when you don't score any runs, everything is exaggerated regarding the negative side also."
The Rays appeared poised to score in the seventh after Zobrist led off with an infield single and Matsui hit a one-out single to right. But Zobrist got thrown out trying to advance to third on a Phil Coke pitch that bounced off catcher Alex Avila's glove. Zobrist thought the ball popped away a little farther, but Avila collected it in the back of the batter's box and got him at third.
"He had to make a perfect throw, and he did," Zobrist said. "Obviously, I regret it now 'cause it didn't work out. But if I make it there, then it's a good play."
Tigers manager Jim Leyland admired the aggressiveness.
"The Rays are one of those teams who live by the sword and die by the sword," he said. "That kind of play that Zobrist made has won them a lot of games over the last several years. (Sunday) we happened to get an out."
Joe Smith can be reached at email@example.com.