Coming to the defense of his beleaguered bullpen the last few days, Manager Joe Maddon has noted that in many cases, the Rays' failure to tack on runs late has been just as big a factor in potential wins slipping away as whatever the relievers did.
Wednesday night, poor relief pitching and a disappearing offense were equally culpable in the latest late-inning meltdown for the Rays. Wasting yet another brilliant performance by Jeff Niemann, Tampa Bay served up four runs in the bottom of the eighth to fall 4-2 to the Yankees
The completion of a four-game sweep extended the Rays' losing streak to eight games, their longest skid since the dark days of 2007. And even though Niemann above all others deserved better, it was difficult for the Rays to argue their fate after their final 28 batters of the game - from the fifth batter of the first inning on - failed to record a hit.
"We're putting so much pressure on the end of the game, where we're just not picking up enough of a lead that you can have some kind of a cushion," Maddon said. "Of course we had the lead and we're just not getting it done at the end, but we need to do better offensively also."
Before the late rally capped by Jorge Posada's pinch-hit, three-run homer off Grant Balfour that gave the Yankees their first lead of the game, it appeared the crowd of 45,848 on hand would have been content to let the Rays have their win.
They already had seen what they had been yearning for since the Yankees returned home Monday, as Derek Jeter broke out of his seemingly eternal 0-for-12 slump and collected three hits off Niemann to tie Lou Gehrig as the franchise's all-time leader.
Jeter grounded out in the third inning, but bounced back with a ground-rule double over B.J. Upton's head in the fifth and a sharp single down the right-field line in the seventh that set the stadium roaring. It was Jeter's 2,721st hit, giving him a chance to exhale a bit after days of overbearing scrutiny. He drew a walk against Balfour in his final trip to the plate.
While the focus among everyone else at the stadium was on Jeter's at-bats, they served as a mere sideshow for the Rays as Niemann cruised along.
The rookie spent the night doing what he does best, pumping strikes into the zone and remaining unflappable when presented with potential complications. He didn't record a single 1-2-3 inning in the seven he pitched, but he never seemed bothered when presented with base runners throughout the course of the evening.
But when Alex Rodriguez drilled Niemann's first pitch of the eighth inning into center for a single, the starter didn't get a chance to escape. On came the bullpen, and in came the runs. Hideki Matsui singled off Lance Cormier to put runners at the corners, and a potential double-play ball off Nick Swisher's bat evaporated when Chris Richard air-mailed a throw into left field, leaving everybody safe.
Brian Shouse came on to strike out Robinson Cano, but Balfour couldn't handle Posada, who cranked a full-count offering into the seats. It was the third time in the past two weeks Balfour has been on the mound as a game spun away from the Rays, and he summed up the mood of the team Wednesday night.
"I've been terrible," Balfour said. "I've been freaking terrible. I don't know what else to tell you - I hope it turns around quick, because I'm sick and tired of going out there and feeling like this."