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Tampa Bay Rays lose to Florida Marlins, fall out of first place

MIAMI — There was the fly ball that bounced lazily off the heel of centerfielder B.J. Upton's glove followed by the liner that hit the ground and scooted past rightfielder Ben Zobrist. The next inning, it was a sky-high popup that second baseman Sean Rodriguez never saw until it came down a few feet from him just before the two-run homer that essentially did them in.

But the biggest drop came about a half-hour after the 4-1 loss to the Marlins, when the Yankees' victory knocked the Rays out of first place for the first time in two months.

Having held or shared the top spot since an April 22 win in Chicago, and having led by as many as six games on May 23, the Rays (42-27) this morning are looking up at the Yankees (43-26) — and just percentage points ahead of the Red Sox.

And as much as they've been saying they anticipated an arduous three-way battle for the top spot in the American League East, Rays manager Joe Maddon wasn't pleased with the paradigm shift in perspective.

"Let's get it back," Maddon said. "I'd just like to believe that our guys aren't going to like it, and I would like to see that serve as motivation."

In the clubhouse, the players didn't seem as concerned with the change in the standings — "It's one game," Upton said. "That could change tomorrow" — as their inability to alter their performance, with what started as a skid now a serious concern with a 10-15 record over the past month.

"We haven't been playing the way we can play," Zobrist said. "The bottom line is we can play better than we've played recently, and we just haven't been able to pull it out."

A decline in starting pitching has been a major part of the problem, as the starters — despite a decent Sunday outing by David Price — have a 5.72 ERA over the past 25 games after posing an MLB-best 2.72 mark in the first 44.

But Maddon is more concerned about an offense that has become starkly inconsistent and noticeably unproductive against top-quality pitchers such as Florida ace Josh Johnson, who shut them down Sunday.

"More than anything, offensive consistency is what we need," Maddon said. "To be able to battle through moments where (our) pitchers aren't as sharp, where you do face a good pitcher. We're just too much of a rollercoaster offensively speaking, I think."

They knew the margin would be slim Sunday against Johnson, who allowed only a fourth-inning homer to Carl Crawford and got out of his one big mess when he got Evan Longoria to fly to right with two on in the eighth.

All of which only made the defensive miscues more irritating, though the players cited a combination of reasons such as the sun, extremely bright sky and tricky Sun Life Stadium background.

"It seems like everyone behind home was wearing white shirts, and you had the sun coming off the orange seats," Upton said. "It was just tough to see out there. When I finally saw (Chris Coghlan's fifth-inning liner), it just sank into me, handcuffed me."

What made it worse was that Zobrist didn't see the ensuing drive by Gaby Sanchez until it was too late, and it scooted by him for an RBI triple.

The next inning, Rodriguez seemed to be under Cody Ross' popup but didn't actually see it until it hit the ground a few feet away. "Or," he said, "as it whizzed by my head." Four pitches later, Wes Helms' two-run homer made it a 4-1 game.

Heading home for series with the Padres and Diamondbacks with a treacherous trip to Boston and Minnesota to follow, the Rays insisted on not making too much of their fall.

"We're one game," Rodriguez said. "No biggie."

For now, anyway.

Marc Topkin can be reached at topkin@sptimes.com.

Marlins 4

Rays 1

Tampa Bay Rays lose to Florida Marlins, fall out of first place 06/20/10 [Last modified: Monday, June 21, 2010 9:30am]

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