OAKLAND, Calif. — The Rays came 2,400 miles, then lost by less than a foot.
And Matt Joyce knew it better than any of them.
"Man, when they say it's a game of inches,'' Joyce said, "it's a game of inches.''
Thursday's 4-3 loss to the A's snapped the Rays' five-game winning streak and knocked them out of first place in the American League East. They fell a game behind the Yankees, who beat Detroit and will spend the weekend with the woeful Mariners.
But the game could have turned out differently.
Had Joyce's drive to right-center in the top of the sixth been an inch or two higher, Coco Crisp couldn't have leaped at the wall to rob him of a two-run homer that would have put the Rays up 5-1.
"There's not much you can say about it,'' Joyce said. "It's just one of the greatest catches I've ever seen in person and totally changed the whole game. I honestly didn't think he was going to catch it. I knew I hit it well, as good as I could hit it. That was unbelievable."
Said Crisp, the protagonist in the 2008 Rays-Red Sox brawl when he was with Boston: "I'm always going after the ball with a chance to catch it. And it was low enough that I had a chance.''
And had Cliff Pennington's drive down the rightfield line in the bottom of the sixth been an inch or two to the right instead of ticking the foul stripe on the wall, it wouldn't have been a two-run double that put the A's up 4-3.
"I was yelling at it, running over there, just hoping it was going to go foul,'' Joyce said.
It was that kind of night for the Rays (74-47), who had built a 3-1 lead in the sixth on homers by Carlos Peña and Evan Longoria off A's All-Star Trevor Cahill and a solid outing by Andy Sonnanstine, the other fill-in starter in their rotation. Then they let it go to waste.
"That's a game that we normally do win,'' manager Joe Maddon said. "We let that one get away, and we just can't do that.''
The two near-misses weren't the only issues. The Rays also walked two batters in the pivotal sixth, Sonnanstine putting on Kurt Suzuki to start the frame and reliever Dan Wheeler his first batter, Kevin Kouzmanoff, to load the bases.
"Those were big plays, too,'' Maddon said.
After the leadoff walk, Sonnanstine allowed a single to Jack Cust, and when he got Mark Ellis on a flyout on his 91st pitch, Maddon decided that was enough.
"It's a tough way to lose it,'' Sonnanstine said. "I didn't want to give in and give Cust a fastball late in the count so I was not as mad about that one. But when you have those leadoff walks they have a tendency to come back and get you, so I would say of the two the walk was more concerning.''
Maddon called on Wheeler, and he said he probably would have anyway even if he had had Chad Qualls, who missed the game due to a personal matter.
Wheeler started badly, falling behind Kouzmanoff 3-and-0, then walking him to load the bases. And it got worse from there. He allowed one run on an infield squibber by Rajai Davis, then two on the drive by Pennington.
"It comes down to fastball command for me, and I just didn't have it today,'' Wheeler said. "Walks don't usually work out well. I'm more disappointed about that than anything.''
The A's struck for a run in the first, but Sonnanstine kept it to one until the sixth. "I thought Sonny again did a great job, gave us another chance to win,'' Maddon said.
The Rays didn't do much early against Cahill, but by the end of the night they had rapped seven hits, ending his run of 20 consecutive starts allowing six or fewer, matching the longest such streak in modern major-league history (Nolan Ryan, July 1972 to April 1973). Plus, Cahill hadn't given up a home run in his five previous starts. And he had allowed the lowest batting average to right-handed hitters (.174) in the majors.
So in the fourth, Longoria, a right-handed batter, singled and Peña homered, his 24th of the season and first since July 29. In the sixth, Longoria struck again, this time with a home run to left-center, his second in two days after going 19 games and 75 at-bats without one, the second longest drought of his career. It was just the second time this season Longoria and Pena, the Rays top two sluggers, went deep in the same game – also against Oakland, on April 28.
In the end, it just wasn't enough.
"Give us another foot in our favor, we would have been in good shape tonight,'' Maddon said. "A game of inches, that fine line between winning and losing, there you go.''