James Shields is quickly emerging as the staff ace with a 6-0 record, but the 25-year-old easily could have at least three more wins if the Rays' sporadic offense could gain a bit of consistency.
In some cases, it's a bullpen problem as well. In three of his no-decisions, the right-hander has allowed two or fewer runs and left with the lead, only to have his relief corps lose control.
Unfortunately for recent callup J.P. Howell, Thursday had a little bit of each kind of misery.
"[San Diego's] pitching is as advertised. They do lead Major League Baseball in ERA for a reason," Rays manager Joe Maddon. "It was a combination of their very good pitching and we were just missing today."
Howell had just one shaky inning -- and even that was debatable -- but he was unable to walk away with a win.
The left-hander lasted seven-plus innings into his third start, with a single, an unearned run and four hits the only damage inflicted during the first seven innings. However, his teammates mustered a single run in support of his effort. The Rays fell, 7-1, to the Padres in the rubber match, and in doing so, they surrendered the series to San Diego.
"J.P. did a wonderful job," Maddon said. "For the most part, he's pitched well since he's been back up. He's got great makeup, great character and he's making pitches.
"He goes out there with a lot of confidence, and the team feels that, too."
The first batter Howell faced, Marcus Giles, hit a ball to the fence. But right fielder Jonny Gomes, who was promoted from Triple-A Durham late Wednesday night, jumped high and came down with the prize to keep the game scoreless. Howell walked the next hitter, though, and then he gave up a double. An error from slick-fielding third baseman Akinori Iwamura a moment later allowed what a run to score.
All in the first inning.
Howell locked down after the first, and he allowed just three more hits during the following six-plus innings. He retired 13 of 15 at one point, but that didn't matter when the Rays couldn't push a run across during his time on the mound.
Howell gave up a leadoff double in the eighth, and he was relieved by Gary Glover after 94 pitches, three walks and two strikeouts.
"I was doing the same thing I was doing against Kansas City and Florida," Howell said. "It was all good, it was just a tough assignment.
"It's all about hard work ... and just learning more -- watching these guys do it, too. Being around guys like this kind of fits my style and helps me."
While Howell toiled away, his teammates worked to wear down starter Justin Germano. But it didn't happen. Germano didn't have anything especially dirty -- he fanned four and walked two in his six innings -- but he showed enough control to keep the Rays' roar to a whimper.
Brendan Harris hit the only extra-base hit off Germano, a one-out double to left in the fourth inning. Germano responded by punching out both Carl Crawford and Greg Norton to end the inning.
Crawford said he studied the scouting reports against Germano, but he still finished 0-for-4 with three strikeouts.
"Once you get in the games, it's a little different," said Crawford. "It's always tough to get wins when you get guys coming at you like that."
After Germano's exit, the Rays threatened on a couple of occasions. In the seventh inning, both Carlos Pena and Ty Wigginton drew two-out walks off Heath Bell. The reliever then threw a wild pitch, allowing both runners to advance, but Delmon Young struck out swinging to end the inning.
Unfortunately, the Tampa Bay bullpen continued to struggle. The combination of Glover and Jay Witasick allowed five of the final six runs the Padres scored, making the score appear much worse than what the game entailed.
"Sometimes you run into some rough pitching, and you just have to tip your hat to it," Maddon said. "Offensively speaking, they're not the best team, but they catch the ball and they pitch the ball, and they play with a nice calm about them."
The loss masked a beautiful comeback effort from Gomes, who was eager to show that the .184 batting average he held at the time he was sent down was a thing of the past.
In addition to the great catch in the first inning, Gomes contributed in the eighth. The 26-year-old took an offering from reliever Doug Brocail and deposited it 400-plus feet away in the left-field bleachers for his second homer of the season.
It may have been for naught, but it didn't feel that way for Gomes, who was pumped up at his locker following the game.
"[Being sent down] put me back on a mission here," Gomes said. "That's pretty much what is right here, right now. [I have a] one-year deal; there's no job security. I can go up and down, as you've seen so far this year.
"I'm just trying to wake the bat up, and hopefully all goes well."
Dawn Klemish is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.