ST. PETERSBURG — It appeared right-hander James Shields was headed for a storybook ending to a special start.
Shields had been hampered by hard-luck outings and lack of run support all season. But against the Royals on Sunday, Shields was pitching his best game of the season — maybe even his career — by carrying a no-hitter into the eighth inning.
That's when both Shields' potentially historic start, and the game, were lost in frustrating fashion. A soft liner to rightfield by John Buck, and two subsequent errors on routine plays, helped break a scoreless tie in a 4-1 loss to Kansas City in front of 27,930 at Tropicana Field.
"That was a typical fight that was ended in a TKO as opposed to a KO right there," manager Joe Maddon said. "I think Vin Scully said, 'If it were a fight, they would have stopped it on cuts.' "
Said Jason Bartlett: "We kind of gave the game away."
It was especially tough to swallow for Shields, who said he felt he pitched his "best game and came up short." He said with the score 0-0, he wasn't even thinking about the no-hitter; rather, just shutting the Royals out. "And I didn't get the job done."
This loss, however, wasn't on Shields. A throwing error by catcher Dioner Navarro in the eighth put runners on first and third, and after an RBI single past a drawn-in infield, the Rays botched a rundown between first and second, allowing Alex Gordon to steal home on a bad throw to the plate by Bartlett.
While acknowledging Kansas City starter Brian Bannister pitched well in seven scoreless innings, Maddon said he didn't think the Rays "attacked the game like we should have" after two straight wins over the worst-in-the-AL Royals. As a result, Tampa Bay (57-48) fell to six games behind the Yankees in the East.
"These little (defensive) plays that have popped up on us that have prevented us from winning games like today, and that's not us," Maddon said. "We should make those plays. We are better than that. And that's the difference between going back to the playoffs and not."
Shields said his command was merely "okay" as he tied a season high with four walks, but he made pitches when he needed to. And his final inning started rather innocently, with Buck hitting a soft liner that bounced a few feet in front of Gabe Gross, snapping the no-hitter and leading to a standing ovation.
That's when, as Navarro said, "things got out of control quick."
Navarro fielded an attempted sacrifice bunt by Alex Gordon, but his throw to second bounced into centerfield, putting runners on first and third.
"I thought we had a shot to get a double play but I just made a bad throw," Navarro said. "That was about it. And things got out of control."
Royals centerfielder Mitch Maier, who had thrown out B.J. Upton at the plate in the sixth, gave the Royals a 1-0 lead with a hit up the middle off the glove of a diving Bartlett.
With one out, the Rays caught Maier in a rundown. As Bartlett chased him to first, Gordon tried to steal home. Bartlett threw awkwardly on the run, and it bounced away from the plate. Because Maier got to second, Bartlett was charged with an error.
Bartlett took responsibility but also said the Rays could learn from the mistake. He said he needed a teammate to be his "eyes" and yell that Gordon was going home so he could set his feet on time for a throw.
Bartlett said the defense as a whole hasn't played up to its standards, a stark contrast from its sharpness in last year's World Series run.
"Last year, we'd make the routine plays; we weren't making the dumb errors and every now and then we'd make a spectacular play," Bartlett said. "Now, we're making errors on routine balls. It's just we're playing bad baseball, and not executing right now."