ST. PETERSBURG — Branch Rickey once said that baseball is a "game of inches."
Manager Joe Maddon, a Rickey fan, went a step further Monday night after a 3-2 loss to the Indians in front of 14,337 at Tropicana Field.
"It's a game of centimeters," Maddon said, smiling. "It's really that close."
DH Luke Scott thought he was going to score the tying run in the eighth inning, racing around from second base when Jeff Keppinger sliced a blooper just foul of the rightfield line.
"One centimeter off," Scott said.
Keppinger ended up flying out and pinch-hitter Brooks Conrad struck out looking on a 3-and-2 pitch, stranding Scott on third in the Rays' final threat. It marked the 12th loss in 17 games for the Rays (46-44), now three games back of the wild-card leading Angels. Tampa Bay has four runs or fewer in 15 of its past 18 games.
"There's a lot of baseball left this season," said Scott, who has seven hits since June 1, all against the Indians. "We have a great team. We have guys that … we have underachieved . But that doesn't mean we can't put it together and come away with a strong run here and do some damage."
Thanks to some sparkling defense and stellar bullpen work, the Rays were able to limit the damage after a disappointing start from rookie Alex Cobb. Cobb, who lasted just 31/3 innings, struggled with his command, throwing half of his 86 pitches for strikes, walking five and allowing five hits (four doubles). But Cobb allowed just three runs as lefty reliever J.P. Howell stranded the bases loaded in the fourth by getting the final two outs.
Cobb said the mechanical problem was that he wasn't finishing his pitches and couldn't make the adjustment.
"My fastball and curveball were all over the place," Cobb said. "If you can't locate your fastball, and get ahead, you have no chance to last late into the game."
Ex-Rays Johnny Damon and Casey Kotchman, a Seminole High product, made successful returns to the Trop, with Damon picking up two hits. But the Rays bullpen threw 52/3 scoreless innings, and the defense turned a club record-matching five double plays, the first time it had done that since Sept. 16, 2006.
"Outstanding," Maddon said.
The Rays had one costly error, with catcher Jose Molina's passed ball with two outs in the first allowing Shin-Soo Choo to score from third.
"That was big," Maddon said. "It looked like a curveball, pretty much right there, and he just missed it. (Molina), that's something he doesn't normally do, and I know he's upset about it. That was significant."
And despite the Indians boasting one of the best late-inning relief tandems in baseball, the Rays had their chances, stranding a runner in scoring position in the seventh and eighth innings.
"You look at those things — guys hit balls hard, they make plays on defense, they make good pitches," Scott said. "And with one little millimeter or centimeter, the game is changed."
Joe Smith can be reached at [email protected]