One of the concerning characteristics of this Rays team through the first 3-1/2 weeks of play is the frequency in which it has let games get away.
It happened again Friday in a 5-4 loss to the White Sox, as a 3-0 lead disappeared quickly. Roberto Hernandez, the Rays pitcher who rarely gives up home runs, watched three fly out of the park, and the offense sputtered again.
"We had it," manager Joe Maddon said, "and gave it up."
Scoring first is one of the Rays' primary themes, a nod to the style of game they play and the dominance of bullpens around the league. Friday was the 16th time in 23 games they took the initial lead, but they are only 8-7 in those games. They are 10-13 overall, 2-9 on the road, just 2-6 in one-run games.
"You have to capitalize on those close games," outfielder Matt Joyce said. "I think good teams do. Good teams that make the playoffs have a lot of moments where they win a lot of close games. For us, we have to figure out how to win those games."
They looked to be headed that way Friday. Joyce, struggling so much he was moved into the leadoff spot on another of those Maddon things, homered in the third, and the Rays added two more in the fourth on an opposite-field homer by Evan Longoria (his sixth in 12 games) and an RBI single by Kelly Johnson after the first of James Loney's two doubles.
But Hernandez, who allowed one run on three hits through four relatively sharp innings, gave it back, and more.
He allowed two homers, accounting for three runs, in the fifth and then another homer in the sixth. And it wasn't the big boys in the Sox lineup hurting him, but backup catcher Hector Gimenez (the first homer of his big-league career), reserve infielder Tyler Greene (his 17th), and third baseman Conor Gillaspie (his third).
Hernandez is typically a ground-ball pitcher - in his first 189 big-league games, pitching as Hernandez or Fausto Carmona, he never allowed more than two homers - and said he didn't change anything.
But, he allowed, at a certain point he noticed "my ball was flat, no movement, nothing."
From the dugout, Maddon saw the same thing. "He was okay," he said. "I just think that he was probably missing a little bit where he wanted the ball to be. Stuffwise, looked a little flat from the side, which I think the hitters kind of demonstrated."
The Rays made a late bid in the ninth, cutting the margin to 5-4 when catcher Jose Molina doubled and, after Sam Fuld foul-popped out, Joyce singled him in. But they got nothing more.
The night was at least something of a breakthrough for Joyce, who came in hitting only .185 and without a hit with a runner in scoring position. Maddon, as he has done with other power hitters, wanted Joyce to change his approach in the leadoff spot and focus just on reaching base, eliminating the urge to try to do too much. It was the third time Maddon has put Joyce in the leadoff spot (twice in 2011) and he has homered in all three games.
"At that rate," Joyce said, "I might want to lead off every game if that was the case."
Marc Topkin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.