KANSAS CITY, Mo. — The Rays are still talking about winning the American League East.
A bigger concern is just winning another game.
A second straight poor performance in a 7-0 loss to the last-place Royals is turning the Rays' September stumble into a free fall — three straight losses, and five in their past six games, all against last-place teams — that not only cost them their advantage in the division race but should be raising concerns about their readiness for next week's playoffs.
"I don't think we're as concerned as much as we are unhappy about it," said James Shields, who contributed to the cause with another poor start. "We definitely got to get better these next two games. These last two games we played, both sides of the coin, the pitching and the defense, and the hitting, I think needs to step it up a little bit these next couple games just to get ready for the playoffs."
Friday's breakdown was thorough: Shields allowed a career-high-matching 12 hits and extended his winless streak to six; the offense was held to two hits, one a bunt single, by journeyman lefty Bruce Chen (who logged his first career shutout); and the defense continued to look dazed and confused.
The Rays were held to three hits or fewer for the MLB-high 14th time and were shut out for the third time in five games.
"Not good," manager Joe Maddon said. "We have not played well the last two days, and we have to do better. I don't know if it's a little bit of fatigue. I know it's definitely not nerves or pressure."
In the meantime, the Rays dropped one-half game out of first place and lost control of their own destiny in the AL East race with the Yankees, who were rained out in Boston on Friday and have an afternoon/night doubleheader today.
The Rays (94-66) and Yankees (94-65) have a magic number of three, which means it's possible that either team could clinch tonight, but more likely the race will continue until Sunday.
If the Rays, who have the tiebreaker advantage, win their final two games, they still need at least one Yankees loss. If the Yankees win their final three, they would win the division, and get the accompanying benefit of homefield advantage in the first and possibly second round of the playoffs, plus a date with Texas rather than Minnesota.
Of course, if the Rays don't start playing better, it may not matter whom they face, though from Maddon on down they insisted after Friday's game there was no reason to worry.
"I don't think it's going to have any relation on the way that we play in the postseason," said Evan Longoria, whose injury absence appears part of the problem.
"We're not playing well, and yeah, from the outside it's definitely not easy to watch. But hopefully a lot of it is just mental and not physical, and I think that's maybe the way it is right now, guys are kind of giving themselves a little bit of a mental break before we go into everything that the postseason has to offer.
"But it's okay; we're going to be all right. I've seen this team bounce back. We've seen it 1,000 times. I'm just waiting for the day that I can get back in there."
Maddon took a similar view, insisting he was confident they would get things turned around.
"We've gone though these little things in the past, and we normally come out in pretty good shape, so I totally believe as we move this thing forward, as we get to next week, we'll be fine," he said.
"I'd just like for us to be able to win two games and see what our chances are at that point of winning a division and still having a chance for the best record. That's what I'm still focused on."
Marc Topkin can be reached at [email protected]