ST. PETERSBURG — The day began with a players-only meeting called by Carlos Peña, who asked the struggling Rays not to press, to just play their game and "everything else will take care of itself."
Afterward, Evan Longoria walked by reporters in the dugout during batting practice, telling them to get their positive thoughts ready to write about a win.
But despite a gritty comeback Wednesday night, the Rays ended up with an all-too-familiar result, a 5-4 loss to the Padres in front of 15,809 at Tropicana Field. Tampa Bay (42-29) has lost six of its past seven games and nine out of 12, and with the Yankees playing a late game at Arizona, the Rays were in danger of falling a season-worst 21/2 games out of first place in the American League East.
"We need to win some ballgames," said right-hander James Shields, who didn't pitch badly but lost his sixth straight start. "We need to do something different right now."
Longoria, who went 0-for-5 and left six runners on base, preached perspective.
"I think what we've got to do is realize that we're still within striking distance even though we've been playing probably our worst baseball that we've played all year and we're still right there," he said. "We just have to keep coming to the field every day hoping and praying that things are going to turn around."
Shields (6-7), who felt he had good stuff, gave up four runs over seven innings, striking out seven and walking one. The Padres did most of their damage with the long ball: Will Venable hit a two-run homer in the fifth and Adrian Gonzalez ripped a solo shot over the centerfield wall in the sixth.
But one of the game's tipping points came on a controversial balk call in the seventh, after the Rays had battled back with three in the sixth to tie. Scott Hairston led off with a single and advanced to second on Shields' balk. Shields then got the next two outs, but Jerry Hairston drove in the go-ahead run with a single to left.
Shields and manager Joe Maddon disagreed with the call, with Maddon saying it was "kind of a really unusual call at a really critical part of the game.
"I didn't see him do anything different from what he normally does," Maddon said.
Said Shields: "I've never gotten a balk call on me in my career, minor leagues, big leagues, anything. I could understand if I moved my shoulder, didn't double set my hands, kind of tucked my knee a little bit before I went over. But I've never been called about not stepping off the back of the rubber. … It's a tough thing to swallow."
The Rays battled back, with B.J. Upton sparking their offense. Upton, who went 2-for-4 with two steals, knocked in a run in the sixth and scored another. Sean Rodriguez homered to tie it at 3.
"We had a little bit more fight tonight," Upton said.
Reliever Joaquin Benoit gave up a solo homer to Chase Headley in the ninth, which proved to be a big insurance run. That's because Jason Bartlett, aboard on a one-out double in the bottom half, scored on a throwing error by Headley at third base when Carl Crawford hit a potential game-ending grounder.
That set the stage for Longoria, whose high hopes entering the game were dashed when he was struck out by closer Heath Bell.
"Ten times out of 10 I'll take that opportunity in the ninth and hope to drive the guy in to win the game or tie it up," Longoria said. "Again, it's just not that time for me now and we've got to keep plugging to win."
Joe Smith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.