ST. PETERSBURG — They held extensive meetings to talk philosophy and approach. They went through extra early workouts to go over fundamentals and refresh spring training basics. They spoke optimistically about overcoming the absence of their injured teammates and remaining contenders for a playoff spot.
And then the Rays went out to start the second half of their season by making a series of mistakes in a 3-1 loss to the Red Sox on Friday before 29,089 at Tropicana Field.
"You always want your guys to try hard, but then they get to the point where maybe you're trying to make things happen when you should just let the game play itself out sometimes," manager Joe Maddon said. "But I've been talking to them a lot, so maybe any overzealousness that you saw tonight, partly my fault."
Which, at least in theory, is why outfielder B.J. Upton got picked off first base with the Rays' best hitter against lefties, Jeff Keppinger, up to end the home half of the first inning. Why DH Luke Scott, with the bases loaded in the fourth, swung at would have been balls three and four to end the threat. And why Ben Zobrist was thrown out on a relay trying to advance to third on Upton's line out in the eighth.
"We're trying to scratch to score runs right now," Zobrist said. "We need to score more runs, and so we're trying to do everything we can to make that happen. You've got to keep battling and keep trying to force the issue on the other guys, and that's what we're going to keep doing. We're not going to be afraid to make mistakes, and keep playing hard and let the chips fall where they may."
Compounding those mistakes were a few on the mound, despite starter Jeremy Hellickson having what Maddon said "might have been his best stuff" of the season. Hellickson made a major tactical error by grooving a 3-and-1 cutter — "a bad pitch," he acknowledged — to David Ortiz for a first-inning homer. Then he followed with a messy 29-pitch second inning in which he loaded the bases on two walks and a hit batter, leading to two more Boston runs on a ground ball single up the middle that somehow bounced slowly between shortstop Elliot Johnson and second baseman Keppinger.
In essence, there was too much talk and too little action as the Rays lost for the 10th time in their past 15 games, dropping to 45-42, 8½ games behind the AL East-leading Yankees and only one game ahead of the Red Sox.
The offensive shortcomings are mounting, as it was the 10th time in 87 games they scored one or no runs, the 27th time they struck out 10 or more times, the 68th time they didn't get to double-digits in hits.
"We have got to do better offensively," Maddon said.
But in the push for more offense, the Rays might be only compounding their problems by trying to do too much.
Maddon termed Upton's pickoff "more of a mental mistake" they "have to be better with."
He said Zobrist "had some good logic" as rightfielder Ryan Sweeney slid for the ball, but that "did not work out."
And he called Scott's strikeout an example of the need for "better decisionmaking or pitch selection."
"We just have to figure out a way to score four runs on a night we give up three," Maddon said. "That's what it comes down to."
Marc Topkin can be reached at [email protected]