Fighting for first place at the end of May is a position Rays manager Joe Maddon feels comfortable with, even if Tampa Bay has been taking its share of blows lately.
The Rays dropped their third consecutive game Wednesday, falling 4-3 to the Chicago White Sox in front of an announced matinee crowd of 13,369 at Tropicana Field. It was the fourth loss in five games and marked the first time Tampa Bay was swept in a series since July 25-27 last season at Oakland and the first time the Rays were swept in a home series since opening weekend last year against Baltimore.
Since starting the season 13-1 at home, Tampa Bay has just four wins in its past 13 games at Tropicana Field.
And with key contributors such as Evan Longoria, Desmond Jennings and Jeff Niemann among the nine players on the disabled list, perhaps everything is catching up with a Rays team that went 14-14 in May.
"Regardless if we are missing people or not, we expect more of ourselves than that,'' Maddon said. "It's not about who we are missing. The people that are here, we have to figure out more ways to be more creative, more resourceful and get these runs. We're playing hard but we're also making mistakes. We're not really playing a high level of baseball right now.''
Making his third start since Niemann suffered a fractured leg, Alex Cobb (2-1) took the loss after allowing four runs while giving up a career-high nine hits in five innings. But he was not helped by some defensive plays that have become the trademark of success for the Rays during the past five seasons.
That was evident on a base hit by Paul Konerko in the first inning that slid under the glove of third baseman Drew Sutton and past shortstop Elliot Johnson. That was followed by a base hit from Alex Rios that gave the White Sox a 1-0 lead, and Chicago was on its way to its eighth straight win and 12th in 13 games.
Though Cobb was able to escape unscathed from a bases-loaded, no-out situation in the second, Chicago answered a Luke Scott solo home run in the second with a pair of runs in the top of the third.
"Too many mistakes on the field, things that we're not used to doing,'' Maddon said. "We have to get better there also. Again, we don't make excuses. The people that are out there, we have to do a better job, whether it's catching the ball or having better at-bats when it's necessary.''
After Cobb, who allowed back-to-back, two-out doubles in the fifth, left trailing 4-1, the Rays' bullpen did its job by shutting down the White Sox the rest of the game. And when Carlos Peña belted a two-run homer in the sixth to make it a one-run game, it gave Tampa Bay an opportunity to rally.
But the Rays were sent down in order in the seventh and eighth and a potential ninth-inning rally — led by a Peña walk to start the inning and a one-out single by Matt Joyce — was diffused as Ben Zobrist and Scott each popped out to shortstop.
"The bullpen was huge today, it gave us a chance down the stretch to win. … Unfortunately it was just a little too short,'' Cobb said. "They are just a hot team right now, they found some holes and hit some balls hard. When a team is hot, good things happen for them. They were being aggressive in the zone and took advantage of it.''
That is something the Rays have not been able to do consistently enough in recent games, particularly in the three-game sweep by Chicago, scoring a total of six runs. And with just four hits on Wednesday, the Rays have registered five or fewer hits in three of the past five games while scoring four or fewer runs in five consecutive games.
"We just have to keep moving along, keep grinding it out. This happens throughout the course of a Major League Baseball season,'' Maddon said. "But part of that is just getting well, putting people in their regular spots, where they are used to being. As we get well and get the regular group back out there and play people as we should be able to play them, we should see some of those mistakes start to go away.''