ST. PETERSBURG — The Rays say they typically play better with a packed Tropicana Field.
And the fans gave them what they wanted Wednesday in the regular-season home finale, taking advantage of the team's offer of 20,000 free tickets (which were scooped up in less than 90 minutes) to make for a very lively "capacity" crowd of 36,973.
But the fans didn't have much to cheer about in the 2-0 loss to the last-place Orioles, the Rays' third loss in their past four games.
"The pitchers fed off the energy really well," manager Joe Maddon said. "The hitters didn't."
The Rays (94-64), who finished their home schedule 49-32, say the loss wasn't due to a hangover from their celebration following a postseason-clinching victory the night before. But they were held to three hits for the second time in three days and a majors-high 13th time this season. It also was the eighth time the Rays have been shut out this season.
This time, it came against struggling veteran right-hander Kevin Millwood, who picked up just his fourth win of the season.
The good news for the Rays was the Yankees also lost. That cut Tampa Bay's magic number to clinch the American League East to three with four to play against last-place Kansas City starting tonight. But Minnesota beat Kansas City and now sits one game behind Tampa Bay in the three-way battle for the AL's best record.
"We just need to score more," Maddon said. "We need to be able to score at least three runs."
Maddon said right-hander Jeff Niemann "deserved a better fate" after his strong performance.
Niemann, who went through a month of struggles after coming off the disabled list (right shoulder strain), seemingly has found himself in his past two starts. He retired 17 of the first 20 batters he faced, giving up two hits over the first six innings.
"Everything was 10 times better than it's been," Niemann said. "It's just a good one to end (the regular season) on, and we'll build on it from there."
But in the seventh, Niemann got into trouble. After a leadoff walk, he got the next two outs, including a spectacular diving catch by centerfielder B.J. Upton, who heard the crowd boisterously chant his name afterward.
"That was cool," he said.
Adam Jones followed with a single before Felix Pie ripped a triple over Matt Joyce's head in rightfield, giving the Orioles a 2-0 lead.
"(Pie) hit that ball really hard," Joyce said. "Jeff did an awesome job. He was one strike away from getting no runs at all."
The Rays offense fizzled, not putting a runner past first until the seventh inning, when they loaded the bases with two outs before Upton struck out.
"We want to have everything going, not just the offense," Carl Crawford said. "We were kind of lackadaisical after the big win and everything, but hopefully we can get back on track."
Said Maddon: "They outplayed us tonight."
3 Combination of Rays wins and Yankees losses needed to clinch the AL East championship.