ST. PETERSBURG — Ben Zobrist said he was licking his chops coming to the plate in the eighth inning.
With the bases loaded, one out and the Rays down a run to the Orioles, Zobrist — a fastball hitter — knew hard-throwing reliever Pedro Strop would throw him a two-seamer.
But Zobrist admitted he was "overaggressive," swinging at the first pitch and hitting it right to second baseman Robert Andino, resulting in an inning-ending double play that thwarted the last Rays threat in a 2-1 loss to the Orioles on Saturday in front of 21,693 at Tropicana Field.
"We have to get that timely hit," Zobrist said. "We're not going to score 10 runs a game, we know that. But we need that hit that'll push you over the edge."
The Rays (30-23) could have used a hit, period, considering they were held to a season-low two as they dropped into a first-place tie with Baltimore atop the American League East.
Tampa Bay still had a chance, despite two key errors, thanks to another strong start by Jeremy Hellickson. But manager Joe Maddon said that though they're not playing their best brand of baseball, especially on defense, you have to "outhit your mistakes" and find a way, and the Rays are hitting .141 on what is now a 1-4 homestand.
"The bottom line is we've got to do a better job of swinging the bats," DH Luke Scott said. "It's been like the last three weeks, really struggling with the bats as a group. No one has really gotten hot; guys have been just not feeling right."
It didn't help that Orioles left-hander Brian Matusz was sharp, keeping the Rays off balance with his slider and holding them hitless into the fifth.
That's when Sean Rodriguez led off with a double, moved to third on a groundout and scored on a heads-up, headfirst slide into home to beat an Andino throw on a fielder's choice.
But Baltimore regained the lead for good in the seventh. Hellickson, impressive again in allowing just one earned run over 6? innings, left with two out and two on after Ryan Flaherty reached on catcher's interference.
Lefty Jake McGee got Andino to hit a slow roller to third baseman Drew Sutton — who had made a great leaping catch earlier — but he rushed the throw, sailing it past Carlos Peña at first to allow the run to score.
"I felt worse for Hellickson, because he pitched awesome," Sutton said. "He doesn't deserve to get the loss that way."
Zobrist helped Hellickson with two impressive defensive plays of his own in rightfield, including one against the wall to end the fourth. But he wished he had come through in the eighth inning, when the Rays got a rally going thanks to an error and two walks. Zobrist said Strop's two-seamer just tailed away from him to the perfect spot.
"I think he puts that ball anywhere else closer to my barrel, I think it was going to do some damage," Zobrist said.
The Rays have lost five of their past seven, mustering fewer than five hits in three of those games, but they are still in the thick of what Maddon believes will be a tight race until the end.
"We still haven't played our best baseball yet," Zobrist said. "And we're still in a great position right now."
Joe Smith can be reached at email@example.com.