HOUSTON — The Rays have gone long stretches when they have struggled with offense. They have had spurts when their starters have struggled.
And now the bullpen is a problem.
First, Jake McGee cost the Rays a chance to win the game in the eighth inning Tuesday, allowing three straight hits for the Astros to score the tying run.
Then Brad Boxberger lost it in the 10th, allowing a walkoff homer to Marwin Gonzalez leading off the inning in the 3-2 loss.
The struggles might seem to be the toll of the heavy and intense use of the bullpen throughout the season, but Boxberger and manager Kevin Cash said they are isolated incidents.
"I think it's just a rough patch we're hitting right now," Boxberger said. "It's part of it. Everyone goes through it. It's just a matter of how quick we can turn it around."
Boxberger had allowed nine of his past 19 batters to reach over his previous four appearances, on four hits and five walks. After retiring his first batter Tuesday for the last out of the ninth, he gave up the homer on a liner to right on a full-count pitch.
"Three-two count and he knows I'm not looking to walk him and I'm going to go after him with my best pitch, and he sold out on it," Boxberger said. "I threw it right down the middle. I missed the location on it, and he didn't miss the pitch."
The Rays — back under .500 at 59-60 — went to the eighth with a 2-1 lead, primarily the handiwork of catcher Curt Casali — whose fifth-inning homer pulled the Rays even and whose seventh-inning bloop double helped put them ahead despite multiple wasted opportunities — and starter Jake Odorizzi, who bounced back from his rough outing against Atlanta to give them a solid six-inning start.
But McGee, so dominant for much of the season, had a second straight rough outing, allowing the three consecutive hits and needing first baseman James Loney and Casali to execute a 3-2-3 double play to keep the score tied.
"Three straight hits, you generally don't see that happen very often off Jake McGee, but it is what it is," Cash said. "There's not a lot of guessing game when Jake is on the mound. A lot of times he gets people because they can't quite catch up or they expand on the fastball. This team tonight, they did not."
On Friday in Arlington, McGee took the loss after allowing two runs in the eighth on three singles and a sac fly. That meant when Jose Altuve and Gonzalez singled and Carlos Correa doubled Tuesday, the last seven batters he had faced had six hits and the sac fly.
Though McGee threw 20 pitches (16 plus an intentional walk) to get through the eighth, Cash opted to extend McGee into the ninth. He got two outs before walking No. 9 hitter Jason Castro on his season-high 33rd pitch, then Boxberger came on to get the final out.
Boxberger — whose nine losses are the most of any reliever in the majors — was working for the first time since Wednesday but said there was "no rust." And because of the way the Rays used the bullpen, he also was in the unusual position of working in two different innings — for just the third time this season, and all losses, by the way.
"It's always a challenge when you don't do it a lot," Boxberger said, "but I don't think that had anything to do with it."
The Astros took a 1-0 lead in the third with the help of a replay reversal. Jason Castro singled with one out, went to second on a bunt by Altuve – who was originally called out after the usual tidy play by Evan Longoria but then ruled safe after a Houston challenge – and scored on a double to left by Gonzalez.
Odorizzi did a good job keeping the Astros from more, striking out No. 3 hitter Carlos Correa and cleanup man Jed Lowrie, as well as three more Astros the next inning.
After failing to convert promising opportunities in the first two innings, the Rays got on the board in the fifth.
All it took was one swing, on an 0-2 pitch, by Casali. That was his ninth homer of the season, and in his 88th at-bat, a rate that would surpass Miami's Giancarlo Stanton for most productive in the majors. But it also was the eighth of his last 13 hits to be homers, reflected in his .233 average.
The Rays took the lead in the seventh, but again could have had more as they started with runners on second and third and no outs after a single by Kevin Kiermaier and a bloop double by Casali, and then bases loaded and one out after Grady Sizemore walked.
The Rays got their run when Longoria grounded to short and Correa's throw was wide of the bag, forcing second baseman Jose Altuve to go back to touch it, eliminating any chance for a double play, as Kiermaier scored. James Loney grounded out to end it.
Odorizzi was coming off a rough outing against the Braves last week, allowing a season-high matching six runs and nine hits.
But he was confident his issues were correctable, primary the result of poor execution, and Rays manager Kevin Cash said Odorizzi also had the matchups in his favor against the Astros, specifically that his combination of fastball and changeup would play well against their lineup with five lefty swingers.
They both proved right as Odorizzi allowed only one run on six hits while striking out a season-high matching nine, done last on April 18, though he lasted only six innings as he threw 107 pitches.