KANSAS CITY, Mo. — By doing their worst on Thursday, the Rays are doing their best to make sure the American League East race comes down to the final days of the season.
Their ugly-is-the-only-word 3-2 loss to the Royals dropped the Rays back into a tie for first place with the Yankees and meant the division won't be decided until Saturday at the earliest and potentially not until the final day of the season on Sunday.
That's just as Rays manager Joe Maddon has been predicting since spring training in Port Charlotte. And not at all what he prefers now.
"Unintentionally," Maddon said. "I much prefer just getting 'er done, but if that's the way it's going to be, that's the way it's got to be."
Both the Rays and Yankees, who were idle, are 94-65 with three games each remaining, though the Rays do have the tiebreaker in hand, and a magic number of three. The Yankees open their final regular-season series tonight (weather permitting) in Boston, while the Rays, having lost four of their last five, have three more with the Royals.
"We've got to win out," starter Matt Garza said. "That's all there is to it. We don't need to look at what they're doing. We just need to win. And if we win, we'll take it into the postseason and get ready for it."
The Rays were supposed to have a scheduling advantage down the stretch, but they have wasted it by going 3-4 thus far in a 10-game run against the league's three last-place teams: Seattle, Baltimore and Kansas City.
And they've earned it, with another stretch of missing offense — 2, 0, 5, 0, 2 runs in their last five games — and Thursday's defensive debacle that foiled an otherwise solid start by Garza, who pronounced himself fit and ready for the postseason.
"Felt good, felt strong, felt really good," Garza said. "Just went out there and just attacked, went at these guys with what we had. … It's a good jump-off going into October. Right where I need to be."
Garza went seven innings for the second straight start, allowed three runs on five hits, struck out six and walked one.
"That was exactly what I needed," he said. "Got my breaking balls over for strikes multiple times and was able to repeat. So that's a huge thing going into my next start."
The defense let him down with two errors and at least a half-dozen misplays.
"Matt was really good," Maddon said. "Realistically, they should have scored maybe one run. That was not one of our better defensive games."
Garza got off to a bad start, combining with first baseman Carlos Peña to mishandle a slow roller from leadoff man Gregor Blanco that led to a run. It also provided a bit of a scare as Garza caught his right foot on the turf and bent his leg awkwardly under him. "A little nervous," he said. "But everything's fine, A-okay."
There was plenty of bad going around: Peña misplayed a couple of other balls; Ben Zobrist, getting a look at third base, dropped a foul pop that allowed Jarrod Tyson to hit a second-chance RBI triple over leftfielder Carl Crawford's head (after the coaches moved him in); Reid Brignac dropped a throw at second that would have caught Mike Aviles stealing; Zobrist later booted a ground ball; Matt Joyce made an errant throw from rightfield.
"Nights like that are going to happen," Peña said. "We will make mistakes. The moment that you believe you won't and you protect yourself from making them, that's when you do make them. In bunches."