ST. PETERSBURG - The White Sox rolled into town Thursday for a battle of division leaders boasting one of the few pitching staffs in the league with better numbers than the Rays.
Chicago starter John Danks and three relievers proceeded to back up those stats before another paltry crowd at Tropicana Field, retiring the Rays' hitters when it mattered most on the way to a 5-1 victory that was littered with Tampa Bay runners stranded on base.
The Rays left nine men on in the game, with six of them idled in scoring position, including four at third base. The Rays went 2-for-14 with runners in scoring position as Danks and friends navigated one dicey situation after another.
Particularly aggravating was the way the Rays went about squandering those opportunities. Three times - in the third, seventh and eighth innings - Tampa Bay put a runner on third with one out and saw the second out of the inning come on a strikeout. The Rays couldn't even give themselves a chance to score on a groundout, sacrifice fly or error by putting it in play.
"We really do have to do a better job with that," Rays manager Joe Maddon said. "When you're pitching well and you're facing good pitching, you have to take advantage, you have to score runs with outs. We have to do a better job of scoring runs with outs, and just picking those runs up. We didn't do a good job of that tonight and that led to the defeat, because overall we did pitch well enough to win that game, I thought."
Though Edwin Jackson wasn't nearly as good as he has been at points earlier this season, he looked far more comfortable on the mound Thursday.
Coming off a pair of inefficient (nine walks) but generally effective (four runs) outings on the heels of back-to-back scoreless starts, Jackson was sharper this time out. The White Sox still put at least one man on base in all six innings he pitched, though they only managed to dent the scoreboard in two of them.
Chicago got a pair of runs in the second, as the smoking-hot Carlos Quentin singled in Orlando Cabrera and was later driven home on a two-out double to left by Jim Thome. Chicago added a couple more in the sixth as Joe Crede led off with a long home run to left-center on an 0-2 pitch and Nick Swisher doubled and came home on a Cabrera double. Cabrera got thrown out trying to stretch it into a triple on an impressive delivery from B.J. Upton at the warning track that made it to Evan Longoria's glove in the air.
Maddon called Crede's homer, which pushed a 2-1 White Sox lead to 3-1, a "big moment" in the game.
"Just bad execution," Jackson said of the pitch. "Too much plate. ... He hit a mistake."
Upton's clutch throw helped Jackson make it through six, but he was done at that point after 101 pitches. Jason Hammel came on to work the final three innings, allowing a first-pitch homer to Paul Konerko that ricocheted off the C-ring catwalk leading off the eighth, but the Rays were sufficiently punchless that Hammel's duties amounted to mop-up work.
About the only offensive spark the Rays showed came in the third, when Willy Aybar led off with a double and scored on Carl Crawford's single off Danks, but they left the bases loaded in that inning.
Later, Jason Bartlett tried his best to get things going by stealing three bases in a span of three innings and becoming the second Rays player to steal third twice in a game (Julio Lugo did it Sept. 11, 2005, against the Blue Jays), but naturally he was stranded at third both times.
"We had our opportunities," Evan Longoria said. "We need some hits in those situations to get some wins."