HOUSTON — For the Rays, the stage and stakes were different Friday than their sweep in a showdown with the Yankees in the previous two games.
As it turns out, so, too, was their play in a 2-1 loss to the Astros in front of 27,601 at Minute Maid Park.
Houston entered with the second-fewest wins in the majors and the fewest runs scored, but it squeaked out just enough against Rays right-hander Matt Garza.
And Tampa Bay's bats, ever so timely in scoring 18 runs in New York, were ever so quiet, at least in key moments (0-for-12 with runners in scoring position). The loss snapped the Rays' six-game win streak and cut their American League East lead to four games.
"We played like we got in at 4 o'clock in the morning," manager Joe Maddon said of the Rays' arrival time Friday from New York. "We didn't have the same energy that we normally have. We made some mental mistakes that we don't normally make. And with runners in scoring position, we did not have that normal good at-bat."
The night started well. Carl Crawford, playing in his hometown for the first time since 2004, said it was a special day. He drove by his old high school on the way to the stadium before playing in front of about 40 family members and friends.
He then scored the Rays' first run after reaching on a fielder's choice and scoring when rightfielder Hunter Pence misplayed Ben Zobrist's double.
But the Rays (30-12) weren't able to pile on — like they did against the Yankees — and get timely hits.
Maddon said the tipping point came in the fifth inning. With no outs, Zobrist who went 3-for-5, got caught trying to steal third on ball four to Evan Longoria. Then with two outs, Longoria got picked off first.
Zobrist said it was an example of trying to be too aggressive, anticipating an offspeed pitch.
"Regardless, it's just not a spot where I need to be going there," he said. "I was obviously out by a long shot, so it wasn't a smart move."
Zobrist said the Rays' early morning arrival wasn't an excuse. They've played well under those conditions before (and are 17-5 on the road). He credited right-hander Brett Myers, who kept them off balance in key times in his first start against the Rays since losing Game 2 of the 2008 World Series while with the Phillies.
Garza pitched well enough to win, giving up just two runs over eight innings. His road ERA actually increased from 1.99 to 2.04.
The Astros got on the board in the third as Garza gave up a one-out single then walked Myers, who was trying to bunt. Two batters later, Jeff Keppinger singled to tie the score.
"Third inning, I just got out of my game plan," Garza said. "I felt like I was rushing myself, and I was. That's what happens when you don't stay within yourself. You give up those clutch hits."
Keppinger helped the Astros move ahead in the sixth, leading off with a double and scoring on Pence's single.
The Rays had an opportunity to tie it in the eighth, when singles by Longoria and John Jaso put runners on first and second with one out. But pinch-hitter Willy Aybar flied out to left and Brignac struck out swinging to end a nine-pitch at-bat against reliever Brandon Lyon.
Brignac, who had a season-high three hits, threw his bat and batting helmet down in disgust after the strikeout.
It was one of those nights for the Rays, who put the tying run at second with two outs in the ninth before falling to the team with the NL's worst record (14-27).
"You can't be perfect," Maddon said. "You can't be an oil painting every night."