BALTIMORE — The ninth inning was certainly dramatic enough Wednesday, the Orioles first stymieing the Rays with a savvy defensive play, then stunning them with a rapid-fire rally for a 3-2 walkoff win.
But with the disappointment and frustration from the loss obvious in the clubhouse, the more telling Rays performance will be what happens over the remaining 20 games, starting with today's matinee series finale that suddenly looms extremely large.
"We've got to win (today)," centerfielder B.J. Upton said. "We felt like we had to win (Wednesday), but reality is we've got to win (today). We've got no choice. If we want to end up where we want to be, we have to win the game (today), and we have to win the series in New York."
Technically, there is a greater margin for error. At 77-65, the Rays are three games behind the American League East co-leaders, and sharers of the second wild-card spot, the Orioles and Yankees.
The most damaging Wednesday was how they lost: wasting repeated chances to score over the final four innings and coming up on the wrong end of a one-run decision for the 12th time in their past 15 games.
"We haven't found a way," third baseman Evan Longoria said. "We have not found a way. And it's going to keep going the way it's going if we don't."
The end came quickly.
The Rays had a chance in the ninth when Rich Thompson, on second after pinch-running for Jeff Keppinger and stealing with two outs, rounded third with the thought of breaking for home as O's rookie Manny Machado fielded Longoria's slow roller and looked to throw to first. But the 20-year-old Machado made a clever veteran move, faking his throw, which led to Thompson being caught in a rundown for the final out.
Thompson blamed himself for not considering the possibility, then not heeding third-base coach Tom Foley's warning. Rays manager Joe Maddon said there was no fault to be assigned: "Good play on our part, good play on their part."
Then Kyle Farnsworth threw only four pitches in the bottom of the ninth, giving up a first-pitch single to Machado, a bunt, and then a 1-and-0 single to Nate McLouth that sent the orange-clad crowd of 26,076 into full roar.
But the Rays lost it much earlier. Tied at 2 after an ineffective and abbreviated start by Alex Cobb, Upton's 22nd homer and a Ben Francisco RBI double, they had prime opportunities to go ahead in the sixth and seventh.
"That's the game that's pretty much put us where we're at right now," Maddon said. "That's typical of why we're several games behind first place right now."
With men on second and third and one out in the sixth, Ryan Roberts took a called third strike — "Pretty much the big play of that inning," Maddon said — and after struggling Matt Joyce was intentionally walked, Jose Molina, whom Maddon declined to pinch-hit for, grounded out weakly.
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They had Upton on second with no outs in the seventh, but reliever Darren O'Day got Keppinger and Ben Zobrist to pop out, intentionally walked Longoria and, with Maddon again eschewing a pinch-hitter, struck out Francisco.
Maddon refuses to ever label a game bigger than another, but he agreed today will be a test.
"To this point of the season, we've been able to overcome a lot of really tough losses," he said. "So we'll see how good we are (today)."