BOSTON — The Rays don't get a lot accomplished offensively, the triple play they hit into during the second game of the split doubleheader they split with the Red Sox serving as the latest example of their ongoing futility.
But it's a different story on the mound where they finished what they started twice Tuesday with two complete-game 114-pitch three-hitters, from James Shields in a 3-1 loss in the opener and from Jeff Niemann in a 6-2 win in the nightcap.
"How about it? The starters were fabulous," manager Joe Maddon said. "It's tough. We only gave up six hits in the two games combined and only won one of the two. You'd like to believe you can win both of those."
Instead, they finished the long day basically where they started, nine games behind the wild-card-leading Red Sox and 9½ from the first-place Yankees in the AL East with a 65-56 record, and one less day on the remaining schedule to make up ground. Also, with a 2-8-8 mark in doubleheaders.
But at least they went back to the hotel happy for another short night's sleep as they play again today at 1:35, making for three games in less than 28 hours.
Sean Rodriguez had the roughest day, hit by pitches in both games and hitting the sharp ground ball that started the triple play, the second they've hit into in franchise history.
"What did it feel like?" Rodriguez said. "That's what it's been like all year."
After singles by B.J. Upton and Casey Kotchman in the fourth, Rodriguez grounded sharply right at third, where Jed Lowrie stepped on the bag and threw to second where Dustin Pedroia relayed to first. (The Rays also hit into a triple play June 11, 2006, at Kansas City, though it started with a fly ball.)
"It was hit in the perfect spot," Maddon said. "The imperfect storm for us."
Niemann played the biggest role in the win, striking out 10 to improve to 7-0 in 10 starts since coming off the disabled list in late June. He finished strong after allowing the second of two solo homers, retiring the last 12 for his fourth career complete game.
"I definitely wanted to go back out there (for the ninth)," Niemann said. "It's pretty cool to have two (complete games) in the same day and to be a part of it."
It was the first time a team threw two in one day in about 18 years, since Milwaukee against Detroit on Aug. 13, 1993, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.
Niemann had help, as Desmond Jennings — showing off in front of Carl Crawford, the ex-Ray he is replacing — made a leaping catch against the leftfield wall and hit an impressive homer over it, his fifth in 23 games; Ben Zobrist was credited with a steal of home on what started as a pickoff; and Upton delivered a key eighth-inning single that snapped their trip-long 0-for-23 with runners in scoring position.
"We're good at that," Maddon said. "We've got to get better at that play. That's what's held us back."
It certainly did in the first game, though Shields stood in front of his locker almost defiantly, insisting he could have done better even though he'd pitched his remarkable major-league-leading ninth complete game, didn't allow a hit in seven of his innings and only three in the other and retired the last 15 he faced.
"That's a tough loss," Shields said. "You don't give up a hit in seven different innings, you got to win those games. (Tuesday) we got outplayed."
Jennings gave the Rays a 1-0 lead in the first off Jon Lester, but the Rays would get only three hits total for the game.
Shields made his only mistake in the third when he allowed singles to No. 7 hitter Josh Reddick and No. 9 Mike Aviles, then left a 1-and-1 changeup over too much of the plate to Jacoby Ellsbury, who homered again in the nightcap to push his total to 22.
"I feel like I should have won that game 1-0," Shields said. "That's how competitive I am. I have to be. That's just my nature."
It was only the seventh time in Rays history they lost a game in which they allowed three or fewer hits (they've won 60), and the first in more than five years, since Aug. 13, 2006, at Oakland. By the end it also was the second time they allowed three or fewer hits in back-to-back games.
Marc Topkin can be reached at [email protected]