SEATTLE — Saturday was hitting coach Derek Shelton's 41st birthday, but he was thinking of buying Ben Zobrist a gift in return for the sixth-inning single that kept the Rays from being no-hit in what ended up a 3-2 loss to the Mariners.
"Whatever he wants," Shelton said.
What the Rays (55-51) needed, once again, was more offense, as they wasted another solid pitching performance, six-plus solid innings by rookie Alex Cobb, and gave up the momentum and ground they gained with wins the previous two days, falling back to 81/2 games behind the wild card-leading Yankees and 101/2 behind the first-place Red Sox in the AL East.
Impressive and intimidating Mariners rookie starter Michael Pineda was part of their problem, but manager Joe Maddon considered it more self-inflicted because they'd been scoring, with a seven-run inning Thursday and an eight-spot on Friday.
"He's really good, he's a young talent, but with the goals that we have in mind, we've got to figure out a way to get by that today," Maddon said. "It's just an offensive thing. We've got to do better offensively. I mean, the work's being done. Everybody's trying — you can almost try too hard.
"But we just came off two games where all of a sudden you're seeing a little bit of light at the end of the tunnel, but then to fall back off the cliff, that's the difficult part. We just have to become more consistent. You've seen that it's there. We know that it's there. We've got to bring it to bear on a more consistent basis."
With three no-hitters on their record in 2009-10, there was certainly that potential on Saturday. Instead, they were held to one hit for the second time this season. And it's the seventh time in 268 games since the start of last season they had one or none. (No other team has done that more than three times in that span.)
They also had 13 strikeouts, the 20th time in 106 games they've been in double digits.
"We just have to do better than that," Maddon said, as he has again and again.
The Rays, down 2-0 after the first, actually had a run before they had a hit, Johnny Damon walking to open the fourth, stealing second, going to third on an errant throw and scoring on Zobrist's groundout. They got their hit, and tied the score, in the sixth, when Zobrist lined a single just over second baseman Jack Wilson to score Sean Rodriguez.
"It was nice to tie it up right there," Zobrist said. "But once we got to 2-2, you're going to have to hit the ball a little more to win that game, we knew that. We just didn't do that."
Worse, Cobb, who struck out a career-high nine while losing for the first time in eight big-league starts, gave it right back. Dustin Ackley, the Mariners rookie who bedeviled Cobb in the minors and in the Arizona Fall League, got him again, following up his first-inning two-run homer with a one-out double in the sixth, then scoring on Mike Carp's single.
"I've always had a little trouble with him," Cobb said.
The Rays did nothing about it, showing little fight for a team supposedly still in the postseason race. Pineda walked Evan Longoria (dropped to fifth in the order) and Matt Joyce, ending his day, with one out in the seventh, but B.J. Upton (flyout) and Robinson Chirinos (groundout) each swung at the first pitch from reliever Jeff Gray, and that was pretty much it.
"That's kinda tough right there," Maddon said.
That's a polite way to put it.
Marc Topkin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.