The Tampa Bay Rays emptied their lockers, grabbed their suitcases and headed for the airport, certainly thankful for the chance to get away.
It was all there Wednesday, everything the Rays hadn’t done in losing the series’ first two games: solid defense, signs of life with bats and a gutsy comeback. Everything, that is, except the result.
That didn’t change as the Rays (40-35) dropped their third straight game to the Kansas City Royals (34-39), losing 5-4 on a Billy Butler homer in the eighth. The sweep left only a simple summation in its wake.
"They hit the ball really well this series, they pitched really well and they played good defense," said Rays right fielder Ben Zobrist, who had three RBIs. "We just couldn’t really get anything going."
The truth of the matter is that Wednesday marked the Rays’ best all-around game in Kansas City.
After falling behind 4-0, the Rays offense awakened, chipping away with two runs on RBI singles from Jeff Keppinger and Zobrist.
Two innings later, in the eighth, the Rays tied it when Zobrist delivered the clutch hit that eluded the club all series. He lined a triple into the right-field corner, scoring Keppinger and Carlos Peña.
"I loved the fight again," Rays manager Joe Maddon said. "I thought we fought back under some extremes."
Yet the good vibes didn’t last long. After starter Matt Moore got the first out in the eighth, Maddon turned to reliever Burke Badenhop to face right-handers Butler and Jeff Francoeur, the heart of the Royals lineup.
Badenhop, a groundball pitcher, fell behind Butler 2-1. Butler took advantage and gave the Royals a 5-4 lead with a line-drive homer, his 15th of the season.
"I got behind him, I threw a really flat sinker and he hit the (heck) out of it," Badenhop said. "That’s it, in pretty much a nutshell."
Butler’s homer came after the Rays tied the game in the eighth, but they had chances for more that inning. With one out and Zobrist on third, Maddon pinch-hit for Sean Rodriguez with Will Rhymes.
The Royals pulled their infield in, Rhymes hit a sharp grounder at shortstop Alcides Escobar and Zobrist was thrown out at home.
"Among all of our candidates, Will had the best chance to make just contact," Maddon said. "His strikeout rate is among the lowest in baseball, so I’m just looking to have the ball moved right there. And he did."
Maddon also used Hideki Matsui as a pinch hitter in the eighth with two outs and two on, but Matsui struck out. The Rays ended the series just 3-for-24 (.125) with runners in scoring position.
The Rays fell behind early. After getting two outs to start the game, Moore made a mistake to Mike Moustakas, a fellow 2007 draftee, who hit a solo home run. He then gave up another solo shot to Escobar in the third.
It was Escobar’s second homer this season.
"Whoever said solo homers can’t beat you, that’s just happened to me too much this season," said Moore, who allowed four runs in 71/3 innings. "Whether it’s locate or pitch selection better, I have to knock those out of the way."
Moore also gave up two runs in the fifth when Yuniesky Betancourt’s chopper bounced over the head of third baseman Brooks Conrad and drove in two.
That set the stage for the comeback, which encouraged Maddon but still ended with a loss.
The Rays finished their nine-game road trip 3-6 and return home for seven games with the Tigers and Yankees.
"What do I think it will take?" a smiling Zobrist said. "I think we need to hit better, we need to pitch better, we need to play better defense."
None of which happened enough in Kansas City.