NEW YORK — The events of last September entitle the Rays to drape their answers with the caveat that just about anything really can happen.
But after a dismal effort led to another disappointing loss Sunday, 6-4 to the Yankees to wrap what was supposed to be a pivotal six-game trip with one win, the reality of their situation appears to have hit them.
"I don't think by any means that we're in a good spot," third baseman Evan Longoria said. "We've put ourselves in this spot."
Manager Joe Maddon acknowledged that their seasonlong quest for the AL East title is essentially over, as they fell five games out with 16 to play. And with the first wild-card spot even further out of reach, the Rays (78-68) have been reduced to chasing the new second wild card.
"If it wasn't for that, I don't think we'd have much of a shot right now — it'd be pretty tough to come back," rookie starter Matt Moore said. "So obviously that's where we're aiming."
Even that won't be easy, as they are four games behind the Orioles, and also have the Angels in front of them. And all winning the second wild card gets you is a one-game playoff on the road. But at least it's something.
"I love it," Maddon said. "Absolutely love it. I think it's the greatest idea ever. It's the best idea since lights for night baseball."
Sunday's loss, the Rays' seventh in the past 10 games of what was supposed to be a playoff push, was again self-inflicted as Moore put them in an early 5-0 hole, they played sloppily (two errors, wild pitch, four bases stolen, fly ball lost in sun) and — you guessed it — they couldn't quite catch up. It also was frustrating, as both Maddon and DH Matt Joyce were ejected.
Moore imploded in an ugly third inning that ended his day, done in by a combination of two walks, two singles, a wild pitch and a three-run homer by Russell Martin after being down 0-and-2.
Moore didn't have much of an explanation for what changed after an impressive first two innings, but he had a good adjective for his third: "Atrocious."
In two starts on the pivotal road trip, Moore lasted only four and three innings — "Un-Matt-Moore-like," Maddon said — and has lost four straight.
Moore said there are no health or fatigue issues, making it more frustrating. "There's no excuse," he said. "It's got to be way better than that in this situation as a club where we're sitting."
Maddon pegged the issue as the 23-year-old's lack of experience.
"Matt had great stuff, and he was on his way to a really good game, and I believe a lot of that has to do with a little bit of inexperience," he said. "Because even though he had done well last year at the end of the season, it's different. It's different going through an entire major-league baseball season, the wear and tear of it, the emotional component, all of that stuff."
Down 6-1 in the sixth, the Rays actually made it interesting, loading the bases with no outs and scoring two when Longoria's grounder took an odd bounce past third baseman Alex Rodriguez. But Joyce bounced into a double play, adding a run but stripping the momentum. "The big play," Maddon said.
Mathematically, the Rays still have a chance. Their next 10 are against the noncontending Red Sox (a four-game series starting tonight at the Trop) and Blue Jays, then four at Chicago and the last three at home with Baltimore.
"We've got plenty of games left. Other teams can lose. Rays can win," Maddon said. "It's probably a little bit more difficult to see us winning the division, but nevertheless the baseball gods created two wild cards this year. So let's see what happens. If you learned anything from last year, do not give up."
Marc Topkin can be reached at [email protected]