Rays appear fatigued in loss to Twins

Rays appear fatigued in loss to Twins

ST. PETERSBURG -- Prior to Sunday's game, Rays manager Joe Maddon swore the intent and focus of his club was still there. But just a night removed from clinching a historic franchise-first playoff bid, it was awfully hard for the results to be there.

The Rays dropped Sunday afternoon's series finale to the Twins, 4-1, in an emotionless contest that looked as if the club wasn't physically, as much as mentally, exhausted.

With the loss -- and Boston's win over Toronto -- the Rays' lead atop the American League East slips to 1 1/2 games, and their magic number to clinch the division remains at six. That means any combination of Rays wins and Red Sox losses totaling six games will give the Rays their first division championship.

While Saturday's sellout crowd of 36,048 filled Tropicana Field's stands, Sunday's matinee seemed to be missing something from the onset. And it wasn't just the absence of starters Jason Bartlett, Akinori Iwamura, Dioner Navarro, and Carlos Pena from the playing field.

"It drains your energy, going through all the emotional celebrations," starter Andy Sonnanstine said. "[Saturday's win factored] a little bit, but we knew we had a game today."

Sonnanstine certainly did, as the right-hander was arguably the sharpest player in the home jersey. Gunning to tie a franchise-record 14 wins in a single season, Sonnanstine fell short for the sixth straight start, although hardly by his own demise.

The Rays' usually stingy defense looked sloppy in the fourth inning, allowing the Twins to plate all four runs, only two of which were earned. Filling in at second for Iwamura, Willy Aybar made a great play to stop Justin Morneau's ball in the hole, but couldn't convert it into an out. Aybar tried to cut the Twins' lead runner down at second, but ended up hitting Joe Mauer with the throw instead.

While no error was charged, both Mauer and Morneau scored in the inning. Two outs later, an errant throw from Evan Longoria allowed Adam Everett to reach third base on a single, while Rocco Baldelli's throw off Longoria's ball sailed into the Twins' dugout, easily allowing Minnesota to send another runner across the plate.

Tampa Bay's rare defensive woes continued in the following frame, although not nearly as costly since Minnesota was kept off the board. Longoria fielded Mauer's deep ground ball and sent a one-hop throw that eluded reserve Dan Johnson at first. The error was charged to Longoria, and Mauer advanced to second off a rare wild pitch from Sonnanstine that escaped backup catcher Michel Hernandez.

"I don't know, I mean, maybe it's just not supposed to happen," Sonnanstine said of reaching win No. 14. "It's tough, but there's nothing I can do about."

There wasn't much the Rays could do against Minnesota's starter, Francisco Liriano, either. The tough lefty only added to Tampa Bay's woes, holding the bats to one run over seven innings -- off a third-inning sacrifice fly from Pena, who served as the designated hitter.

"He was pretty tough," Fernando Perez said of Liriano. "But we kind of helped him out a little bit. He's the type of guy that, he's got such electric stuff, he kind of induces you to swing at a lot of pitches that are not good pitches."

And the Rays kept swinging and missing, amassing a total of 10 strikeouts.

Liriano was good, but the Rays have faced tough pitching all year. Tampa Bay's bats beat Toronto's Roy Halladay -- arguably the game's best pitcher -- three times this season.

"You never know with our offense," Sonnanstine said. "We could have scored in any inning."

But, or perhaps in spite of, a Major League-leading 11 walk-off wins, the Rays never looked poised on Sunday for one of their trademark comebacks.

Perhaps it was the bubbly champagne celebrations that caused the bats to fizzle. Or defensive wizards like Longoria -- who had a career-first two throwing errors -- just showing their human side. Regardless of what it was, Maddon knew what it wasn't -- lack of effort.

"Of course that's not our game, to make those kind of mistakes," Maddon said. "But it wasn't, I don't think, because people weren't ready to play."

Added Perez: "We certainly were trying to win the division. [Sunday] is just as important as yesterday was in a lot of ways. I think we really approached it that way. We just kind of came up short."

Brittany Ghiroli is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.