In the midst of a tough battle for their first playoff berth in franchise history, the Rays knew their trip against such competitive teams would go a long way to deciding their fate at the end of the regular season.
On Sunday, the first portion of the trip ended on a bad note, as the Rays were blanked, 1-0, by the Blue Jays, who completed a sweep of the three-game series. With the loss, Tampa Bay's lead in the American League East fell to just 1 1/2 games. The second-place Red Sox earned a victory over the Rangers on Sunday.
Having lost five out of their last six games, the Rays (85-56) head to Boston for a critical three-game series with the Sox.
Tampa Bay manager Joe Maddon insists he's not worried about the shape of his club, following a "tightly contested" series against the Jays at Rogers Centre.
"There are still no concerns," Maddon said. "The motto and the mantra has been to play with a consistent effort, and we're doing that. Sometimes you lose when that happens.
"All the right things are there; [the Blue Jays] just beat us. They're pitching really well -- the best pitching staff in the league. They've won eight games in a row now. We just happened to catch them at the wrong time."
The Rays ended August with a 21-7 record -- the best month in franchise history. However, in September, the club has gone 1-5 and had its division lead slowly shrink. Entering the month, Tampa Bay held a five-game advantage over the Boston in the AL East. That margin has been pared by 3 1/2 games.
With a young club such as the Rays, is it possible the pressure of a pennant race could be wearing on them? Maddon does not think so.
"I kind of get the sense or feel that they're fine," said the manager. "Their preparation seems the same. They have the same kind of pregame banter in the dugout. [It] seems to be the same."
Rays center fielder B.J. Upton was asked if anything seemed different with the rest of the players. His thoughts were similar to Maddon's.
"Not really," responded Upton. "We've just been losing close ballgames. I don't think we're really used to it. We've been winning them all year. At some point, it's got to turn, but it's nothing to hang our heads about. We're playing good baseball. We have just got to keep doing it. If we keep doing it, it will pan out for us."
On Sunday, the Rays were on the wrong end of a tight pitchers' duel. In the second inning, Tampa Bay starter Matt Garza allowed a leadoff double to Adam Lind. Lind advanced to third base on a groundout, and then he scored on a sacrifice fly to left field off the bat of Rod Barajas. The run ended up being the only offensive output from either team.
The solitary tally also ended Garza's streak of scoreless innings against the Blue Jays at 25 1/3. Taking the hard-luck loss, Garza (11-9) allowed just the one run on six hits over seven innings. He walked one and struck out seven.
Toronto (76-66) starter David Purcey managed to upstage Garza. Purcey (3-5) stifled Rays hitters over eight frames en route to his first career victory over Tampa Bay.
The Rays threatened in the eighth inning, when Purcey loaded the bases by walking two batters and allowing a single to Upton. However, the left-hander escaped the jam by inducing a fly ball off the bat of Rocco Baldelli.
"He was locating and making pitches when he needed to," Upton said of Purcey. "We got a couple of hits, and he kept us from stringing hits together -- a hit here, a hit there. He did a great job of keeping us off the bases today."
The outcome of Sunday's game was ironically similar to the Jays-Rays game on Aug. 27. That day, Purcey allowed one run and took the loss against Garza, who held the Jays scoreless over 7 2/3 innings in a 1-0 Rays win.
"It's a give and take game," said Garza. "Last time I faced him, I did the same thing and came out on the high part. This time I came out on the short end of the stick. Purcey, he pitched his butt off. All you can do is tip your cap."
Even though the Rays have been in a mini slump of late, the fact remains they still are a first-place team. That is a thought that is not lost among the players.
"You're going to have rough patches," said Baldelli. "Every team who's even in first place at this point of the season, in every division, has gone through rough patches like this. We're no different. We're not invincible, and we know that. We just have to learn from our mistakes and pick it up a little bit."
David Singh is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.