OAKLAND, Calif. — The least the Rays could have done was give Jeremy Hellickson a better parting gift.
The rookie right-hander pitched well enough for a fourth consecutive win in his last start before being demoted — to Class A Charlotte, so he can work out of the bullpen — but his teammates couldn't hang on and lost another game to the A's they looked to have won, 5-4.
The A's scored twice in the eighth, taking advantage of some uncharacteristic ineffectiveness by Joaquin Benoit, who has been one of the most dependable relievers in the majors, and an unusual error by second baseman Ben Zobrist, who an inning earlier looked to be the star of the game after hitting a go-ahead homer.
"He makes that play 101 times out of 100,'' manager Joe Maddon said. "It was really just unfortunate. Believe me, he's very, very good. It's just something that doesn't normally happen to us. We normally don't beat ourselves — we did tonight and we kinda did last night also.''
"Like Joe said, most of the time I'm going to make that play,'' Zobrist said. "It was just a bad time to miss it.''
The loss extended the Rays' freaky Friday performances, as they lost for the 14th time in the past 15 weeks and dropped to 3-16 overall.
Of more significance, it was also a wasted opportunity. They knew before they took the field that the Yankees, whom they trail in the American League East, and the Red Sox, whom they lead for the wild card, both lost. But the Rays (74-48) didn't take advantage, remaining one game behind the Yankees and 5½ ahead of the Red Sox with 40 games left.
Hellickson said he was disappointed and not totally surprised by the news, and buoyed by knowing he'll be back Sept. 1, when rosters expand.
"Disappointed obviously, but we've got Wade (Davis) and (Jeff Niemann) coming back and they've earned it to go back in the rotation,'' Hellickson said.
The Rays are sending him to Class A Charlotte as a matter of convenience, since he's going to spend most of his time working out, pitching maybe just once out of the bullpen, so the travel from Port Charlotte will be minimal.
"It doesn't matter where he gets (the work) done, just so he does it,'' Maddon said. "He'll get a little side work, cut back on his innings, just trying to monitor him the rest of the season and utilize him the best way we can.''
He's been doing pretty well as a starter, and he pitched well enough to win again on Friday, even if he wasn't quite as sharp, allowing three runs on seven hits — including a tying homer by Cust in the sixth.
"I think like my last start it took a couple innings to find my fastball,'' Hellickson said. "But once I felt good with that, I felt really good.''
Hellickson, 23, certainly made the most of his opportunity created with Davis and Niemann going on the disabled list. He won his first three starts and along the way became the only pitcher in modern major-league history to work six or more innings and allow three or fewer hits in each of his first three games. He also was the only Rays pitcher to win his first three starts.
With Davis and Niemann coming back next week, the Rays no longer needed Hellickson, whose roster spot was taken by right-handed reliever Dale Thayer. Benoit got out of a mess Hellickson left in the seventh but got himself in trouble in the eighth. He walked Jack Cust to start the inning then allowed a single to Kevin Kouzmanoff (despite coming in with a majors-low .113 average allowed to right-handed hitters) and a sac fly to Rajai Davis that tied the score.
Benoit wasn't as sharp as he has been, and when he followed a strikeout of Travis Buck with a full-count walk to pinch-hitter Mark Ellis, pushing his pitch total to 37, Maddon made a change.
Lance Cormier got lefty Cliff Pennington to hit the ground ball they wanted, but Zobrist bobbled the ball as it took something of a short second hop, then, with his cleat catching in the dirt, bounced his throw to first, allowing Kouzmanoff to score the decisive run.
"Not a graceful moment,'' Zobrist said.
HZobrist had put the Rays back on top with a two-out, two-strike homer in the seventh after the Rays took an early 3-0 lead and the A's tied it in the sixth.
It was Zobrist's seventh homer of the season (he had 27 last year) and first since July 24.