Rays rest regulars in loss to Tigers

Rays rest regulars in loss to Tigers

DETROIT -- A night after clinching the American League East title, the Rays started a skeleton crew in a 4-3 loss to the Tigers in front of a crowd of 40,756 at Comerica Park.

Rays players burned the midnight oil Friday night while watching the Yankees defeat the Red Sox, which completed Tampa Bay's improbable run to the division crown. A raucous celebration took place early Saturday morning that most of the team took part in, even though it came hours after initially leaving the clubhouse Friday night.

The combination of the celebration's toll, coupled with the resting of players in advance of the playoffs, equated to many of the regulars sitting out the contest.

"We're playing to win," said Rays manager Joe Maddon, even though the atmosphere was clearly more relaxed. "We just made some mental mistakes and some physical mistakes. We didn't play as well as we could."

For the first time in recent memory, nothing was at stake for the Rays in Saturday night's game. But there were several positives that came out of the game.

Matt Garza started for the Rays for the first time since Sept. 17, when he pitched against the Red Sox on short rest for the first time in his career. The 24-year-old right-hander was skipped in his last turn in an attempt to allow him to rejuvenate, and the plan seemed to work as Garza had electric stuff.

"I thought he threw the ball real well," Maddon said. "I thought his stuff was fantastic. Real good fastball, good life on the breaking ball; physically, it's as good a stuff as you're going to see out of him tonight."

Though the Rays (96-65) have not announced their rotation for the playoffs, Garza will likely start the third game, which made his outing all the more encouraging.

"I felt good, my body felt great and my arm felt live, and I felt like the ball was jumping out of my hand tonight," Garza said.

"I kind of fell in love with my breaking pitches tonight, but they felt good," he added. "They came out of my hand great. My slider was down and hard. Curveball was great, fastball, my two-seamer was running. Overall, stuff-wise it was a good night."

Garza was limited to five innings and he held the Tigers (74-86) to three runs on four hits, which included Miguel Cabrera's 37th home run of the season. Despite the team's circumstances, Garza said "you still have to come out here and be on the attack.

"Because this lineup is dangerous. Their record doesn't show it, but they can still put up runs in an instant. They played tough."

Asked if he was pleased with the tuneup before his first playoff start Garza answered, "Yes and no.

"I would have liked [to get the win]. But I felt great, threw good pitches, and gave the team five innings, gave them a chance to win. ... Everything was all right."

Another positive came in the performance of Jeff Niemann (2-2), who took over for Garza and pitched well despite giving up an RBI double to Edgar Renteria in the sixth that turned out to be the winning run.

Niemann's "composure was good, velocity, good down angle, I like that, the curveball was exceptional," Maddon said. "He's got an exceptional curveball. It's one of the better ones you're going to see. It's a great pitch to build off of, and he has command of it. If he has command of that pitch and learns how to locate with his fastball down, he could be very difficult."

Given Niemann's performance, Maddon was asked if the 6-foot-9 right-hander might find a home in the Rays bullpen.

"It's good to see him under these circumstances," Maddon said. "We still consider him a starter, but it's nice to see there may be some versatility there."

Alas, there was Ben Zobrist, who provided another positive when he hit a solo home run off Dontrelle Willis with one out in the fifth inning, his 11th blast of the season.

"It's stinks when you don't win, because that's the name of the game," Zobrist said. "You know, it's very bittersweet. There were still a lot of positives in the game. A lot of good things happened.

"I thought Niemann pitched the ball really well coming in in relief. I just happened to get the barrel on the ball, it was down, a slider. I was real surprised that that one went out. It was two strikes and the ball was low. So hopefully, there's more of that to come."

Bill Chastain is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.