ST. PETERSBURG — Jeff Niemann gave the Rays the chance they needed in Monday's marquee matchup with Detroit ace Justin Verlander by pitching solidly into the eighth inning. And Matt Joyce gave them the early lead they wanted, making the unexpected move to the top of the order look brilliant by hitting a leadoff homer in the first.
But the rest of the Rays — at the plate, in the field and out of the bullpen — didn't give them enough help in a 5-2 loss.
The game, which snapped a season-high-matching five-game winning streak, wasn't all the Rays lost as centerfielder B.J. Upton left with a right shoulder strain that isn't considered serious but is expected to keep him out of the lineup at least tonight.
"We had a chance to win that game," Rays manager Joe Maddon said. "Our pitcher gave us a chance to win that game. It got away from us late."
The margin of defeat, in dropping the Rays to 69-57, and 8½ games behind the idle first-place Yankees (though still 7½ back of the wild-card leading Red Sox), wasn't much before a small first-day-of-school crowd of 13,048 that seemed to roar pro-Tiger.
"Inches," Niemann said.
The Rays trailed 2-1 after an exchange of home runs — Joyce leading off the home first, Tigers catcher Alex Avila with a two-run shot in the second — then the duel between the second (Verlander) and fourth (Niemann) picks in the 2004 draft was under way.
Verlander walked three and gave up one more hit, a double to Johnny Damon, as he steamed through seven innings to notch his major-league-leading, and career-high-matching, 19th win.
"We got some good swings, not many," Maddon said. "Hit a couple balls decently, but not many. That's who he is."
Niemann was nearly as good through seven, not allowing much after the two-run homer and retiring 10 straight in one stretch, but lost for the first time since May 4. "I think Jeff pitched just as well as he did," Upton said.
But the game got away in the eighth. Home plate umpire Ed Rapuano had a hand in it, not giving Niemann the call on what looked like a caught foul tip third strike on Brennan Boesch for what would have been the second out.
"The question was did it hit the dirt or not," Niemann said. "From my perspective, I saw the glove under the ball, but it's a tough call; he can't really tell. He made the best decision he can make, and it's something you have to live with."
Not happily, though, as Boesch followed with a single to right. Then ex-Ray Delmon Young drove a hanging curveball to right-center that eluded Upton, resulting in a double that led to a two-run rally and to the shoulder injury.
"It's funny how you have so much room out there and it really comes down to 5 inches overall that really determined today's game," Niemann said.
After an intentional walk and a Jake McGee strikeout of Avila, the Tigers broke the game open with a ground-ball single by Jhonny Peralta that scored two. As with several other plays on the infield Monday, the Rays failed to execute as third baseman Evan Longoria mishandled the relay, which might have nabbed Miguel Cabrera at third before Young scored. The Tigers added on in the top of the ninth, and Longoria homered to make it 5-2.
"It was one of those things that could have gone either way," Maddon said. "We blinked, and they were able to come out on top."