ST. PETERSBURG — As much that went wrong for the Rays in Friday's 14-9 blasting by the Marlins — and certainly plenty did aside from Carlos Peña tying a team record by homering in his fifth straight game — you could make a case the interleague affair was lost on one pitch.
And a pretty good one at that.
Way back in the third inning, before they gave up a season-high 14 runs and season-high matching 15 hits, the Rays were trailing 1-0 and James Shields was a pitch away from a masterful escape after loading the bases with no outs and the middle of the Marlins order due up.
He struck out No. 3 hitter Hanley Ramirez on five pitches. He got cleanup man Jorge Cantu, an ex-Ray, on a flyout — and not even deep enough to score a run.
He went 1-and-1 then 2-and-2 to Dan Uggla but threw a changeup for Ball 3 then a fastball that was over the plate but, in the opinion of home plate umpire Jim Joyce, who has had more than his share of imperfect fame, a little bit low.
"Borderline pitch," Shields said.
The walk forced in just the one run, but essentially, it was the beginning of the end.
The Marlins scored four more that inning, on a two-run single by Cody Ross (on a 1-and-2 pitch) and a two-run triple by Mike Stanton, the most impressive rookie to debut Tuesday not named Stephen Strasburg, then added another four the next, including the first of Gaby Sanchez's two homers.
"It just flooded. It did open up," Rays manager Joe Maddon said. "That was one of the mantras all spring training — the fine line, the razor-thin line between winning and losing.
"You look at that game, and you think, 'My God, it was awful.' And it comes down to a pitch or two earlier in the game that could have really set a different tone."
Shields called it "probably the worst outing of my career," and the numbers — 10 runs over 31/3 innings — showed it. He'd pitched that little (not counting an ejection-shortened start) only once before and allowed that many runs only once before. Both were in a start July 22, 2007 — when the Rays were 21 games under .500 and in last place.
These Rays are playing for a lot more, even if only 19,338 showed up at Tropicana Field. They still have the best record in the majors at 39-22.
Though with back-to-back losses and 10 in their past 17 games, their lead over the Yankees in the American League East is down to one game (they've been alone at the top since April 22), and the Red Sox are back within four.
Shields hasn't been helping much lately. The right-hander has lost four straight starts (matching his career worst). And the past three have been particularly ugly — a combined 30 hits and 23 runs (20 earned) in 152/3 innings, raising his ERA from 2.99 to 4.55.
"I need to do something," Shields said. "I need to do something. It's unacceptable the way I'm pitching right now. I'm letting my team down and not giving them a chance to win."
Maddon, though, sees no reason to worry.
"It's going to happen. Nobody's going to be perfect during the course of the year," he said. "I'm not concerned at all because physically he's well."
A late rally by the Rays, and some sloppy play by the Marlins, made it at least entertaining, if not quite interesting, over the final two innings as they closed the gap from 14-3 in the seventh to 14-9 in the ninth with two on and one out.
But that was as close as they came, though they took some solace in forcing the Marlins to go three deep into their bullpen with closer Leo Nunez warming up.
"Games like that are going to happen somewhere along the line in a long season. Pretty much everything happens in a long season," Peña said. "Today was one of those things that I think was an extreme, not the norm."
"Nothing really to dissect heavily," Maddon said.
Marc Topkin can be reached at email@example.com. Check out his blog at tampabay.com/blogs/rays.