After wasting a dominant performance by Jeff Niemann against Justin Verlander in a gut-wrenching 4-3 loss to the Tigers on Sunday at Comerica Park, the Rays got more bad news out of Boston.
The Red Sox completed a weekend sweep of the Blue Jays, dropping Tampa Bay to a daunting 5 1/2 games back (2 1/2 behind the Rangers) in the wild-card standings with 33 games to play.
Suddenly, the Rays are facing the prospect of irrelevant games in September.
"It isn't fun, but you just keep going along," manager Joe Maddon said after slumping Placido Polanco hit a game-winning three-run homer off Grant Balfour in the eighth inning. "We get to play them plenty. We've just got to come back (today) and win the last game here, and we'll have a pretty good road trip."
The Rays do in fact have six games remaining with the Red Sox - three beginning Tuesday at Tropicana Field - but they can no longer count on head-to-head meetings for recouping the lost ground.
That is, it's unlikely they're going to win all six games. They cannot keep losing games like Sunday's, when a starter gets to the eighth inning having allowed only a run.
"It's a humbling game," center fielder B.J. Upton said. "We did everything we could today. We played a great ballgame. Jeff threw the ball well. We got some runs off a tough pitcher. Things just didn't go our way."
Niemann outpitched Verlander (15-7), who was taken two spots ahead of him (second overall) in the 2004 draft, leads the American League in strikeouts and has climbed into contention for the AL Cy Young Award.
But the game turned in the eighth, when rookie Clete Thomas, who had three of the five hits Niemann allowed, led off with a double.
Balfour came on and retired pinch-hitter Magglio Ordonez and Ramon Santiago. He walked Curtis Granderson, which brought up Polanco, who was 0-for-11 in the series. The veteran hit a 2-0 fastball just beyond a leaping Carl Crawford over the left field wall.
Maddon could have brought on a lefthander to pitch to the left-handed-hitting Granderson, who was hitting only .181 against lefties. He chose instead to have Balfour pitch carefully to Granderson - walk him if necessary, which he did - because he liked him against Polanco.
Balfour said the strategy took him out of his aggressive mind set.
"I feel like I'm pitching on the defense then," he said. "I wish I never even got that in my head. I challenged the first two guys, and now I'm pitching around (Granderson). Then I kind of went on the defense, and that's when I got hurt."
The Rays did all of their damage against Verlander in the fourth inning, getting a two-run home run from Evan Longoria - his first homer in 19 games - and a solo homer from Akinori Iwamura in only his second game back from knee surgery and rehab.
But the Rays went 0-for-5 with runners in scoring position and stranded two in the third and fifth innings. Trailing 2-1 in the four-game series, they're 2-for-26 with runners in scoring position.
"There's nothing more frustrating," Balfour said. "Niemann goes out and pitches a great game, and I come in and get two quick outs and give up the bomb. It makes you sick, but it happened, and you have to live with it."