In between the Rays' slow start and their too-little, too-late comeback against the Red Sox on Tuesday night, James Shields said one particular pitch served as the turning point of their 8-5 loss at Fenway Park.
With the game scoreless in the fifth, and Shields one out away from stranding two more Boston baserunners, David Ortiz came to the plate, and manager Joe Maddon came to the mound.
There was an open base, and with Ortiz entering the at-bat 11-for-29 with two homers against Shields, they could have walked the slugger to get to Kevin Youkilis, who was 3-for-30 lifetime against the Rays right-hander.
Maddon consulted Shields, asking him whom he'd rather face. Shields picked Ortiz but planned on carefully pitching around him, "an intentional/unintentional walk," with the first delivery supposed to be a fastball "about a foot off the plate."
"I ended up yanking it right down the middle," Shields said. "I don't even know how I did it."
And Ortiz ripped it into the rightfield seats for a three-run homer, a big blow that helped hand the Rays (44-32) their ninth loss in their last 12 games. Third-place Tampa Bay still trails the Yankees by three games in the American League East.
It has been a rough stretch for Shields (5-8), who has lost a career-high seven straight starts with a 7.34 ERA in that span. "I've just got to keep grinding it out," he said.
So does the Rays offense, which continued its puzzling struggles early on before coming on late with five runs in the last three innings.
They wasted a four-hit night by Carl Crawford, who was making his first start in leftfield since Thursday after battling a sore shoulder, by going 3-for-11 with runners in scoring position, stranding 10. Meanwhile, a Red Sox lineup that now has three regular position players on the disabled list racked up eight runs and 10 hits.
"It's the offensive ebb and flow of the baseball season," Maddon said. "We're going to be just fine. We know how to hit, we're going to hit. We've got to fight through this."
Maddon said Shields' night could have been much different had it not been for that ill-located pitch to Ortiz. He said though it was his decision for Shields to pitch to Ortiz, "so don't blame anybody but me," the location wasn't where he wanted it.
"We've talked about since Day 1 the razor-thin line between winning and losing," Maddon said. "And if he was able to execute that pitch right there, the homer doesn't happen and everybody's talking about what a wonderful night he had. It really came down to one pitch."
With the Rays having to face the Red Sox four more times in the next eight games, along with four against the tough Twins, the road doesn't get any easier as they try to climb back in the standings.
"It's one of those things where, as tough as it is, we've got to trust what we've got, make the necessary adjustments calmly, and not rushing a little bit more desperately - because I think the opposite happens," first baseman Carlos Pena said. "That's very hard to do. But it's the type of mentality we must have. ... We can't let things just bring us down, and that's very hard to do. But we're definitely capable."
Joe Smith can be reached at email@example.com.