ST. PETERSBURG — At this point, the Rays are happy with any signs of encouragement from rookie starter Matt Moore.
So even though Thursday's 5-3 defeat to the Red Sox marked his third consecutive loss — and seventh time in eight starts he hasn't won — there was progress to be measured over his six innings of work.
Specifically, in how he retired the last 10 batters he faced, looking, for maybe the first time this season, like the pitcher who dominated at the end of last year.
And, theoretically, how much more restful his night should have been.
"Confidence is a big thing," manager Joe Maddon said. "I know he's going to sleep better. In spite of the loss, at least he's going to feel better about himself."
Otherwise, the Rays didn't have much to feel good about. They wasted repeated chances to score, Luke Scott alone stranding seven baserunners as they left 12 on total. And the bullpen trio of Burke Badenhop, J.P. Howell and Wade Davis failed them in the eighth, allowing the Sox to add on two key runs.
The loss, before a Tropicana Field crowd of 19,842, ended their four-game winning streak, dropping them to 24-15 and a game behind the reality-defying Orioles in the American League East.
With Jeff Niemann out until at least mid July and Alex Cobb expected to be called up from Triple A to replace him, the Rays need Moore to do more. Or at least better, as he essentially moves up a slot in the rotation.
Moore (1-4, 5.20) still made some mistakes, starting with a 33-pitch first inning capped with a bases-loaded walk, then allowing solo home runs (to Marlon Byrd and Cody Ross) in each of the next two innings on two-strike pitches. (Five of the eight homers he has allowed this season have come with two strikes.)
"Two big plays right there," Maddon said.
But what Moore did after that put a good spin on the night as his mix of pitches improved (using more offspeed) and his delivery got smoother. In the first three innings, he threw 68 pitches, including 27 with two strikes. In the last three, he threw only 38, 12 with two strikes.
"Obviously, from the team standpoint, this isn't a victory," Moore said. "But for myself and my individual performance, I was somewhat satisfied with the fourth, fifth and sixth innings."
Catcher Chris Gimenez said he saw a noticeable difference in approach and performance.
"All in all, he threw the ball a lot better than he has at any point, I think, this year," Gimenez said. "Really, it's just getting him to slow down a little bit. Whether it's the nerves or just the adrenaline going, facing the Red Sox, once he slowed himself down, the ball was just jumping out of his hand.
"I know the numbers really haven't shown it, but he's been making steps in the right direction. And it's just up to him to put it all together. Once he gets two, three quality starts together, I really feel it's going to start running downhill for him, and he's just going to take it and run with it."
Moore said he is "doing everything I can within my power" to get better and has been frustrated but not discouraged by the results.
"I haven't had too much trouble sleeping," he said.
Marc Topkin can be reached at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter at @TBTimes_Rays.