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Rays fritter away good fortune in loss

Jeff Passan
Yahoo Sports

PHILADELPHIA – The monkey started to squeak at 2 a.m. The last thing the Tampa Bay Rays wanted to hear only minutes after the worst loss of their season was some howling primate, and yet there it was, in all its miniature stuffed glory, wrapped around a knob on reliever J.P. Howell's locker.

"That thing is losing its head," Howell said.

It had been a present from a fan. A rally monkey, supposedly. And there was a rally Saturday night, one of the Rays' patented come-outta-nowhere jobs that ends with a mosh pit at home plate and toasts in the clubhouse. Only this one didn't. The Philadelphia Phillies, as the Rays are learning, do not break with nearly the ease of their previous conquests.

This is now a real World Series, even if 99 percent of the country was asleep when it became so. The Rays, charming story and Vegas favorite, frittered away their good fortune with a pair of bad pitches and another ill-timed throw from their catcher. And the Phillies, back at home and feeding off three home runs, wrested control of the series with a 5-4 victory in Game 3 Saturday night at Citizens Bank Park that gave them a 2-1 advantage.

So while one monkey gets beheaded today, another already leapt square onto the Rays' back. The Rays' magic, evident all year long, petered out. Pixie dust turned to anthrax. Carlos Pena and Evan Longoria continued their hitless-for-the-series skids. Even manager Joe Maddon's uber-tinkering – the game ended with the Rays employing five infielders – did nothing to offset a long night that got a whole lot longer with a defeat.

"Seventy-five percent of the time, we're going to win that game," Howell said. "They did the same thing we were doing: making plays and doing things and hitting in timely spots. Sometimes you fall short on the other end."

It's just that … well, the Rays aren't used to falling short. They win these games. Down 4-1. Home runs from Chase Utley, Ryan Howard and Carlos Ruiz. Jamie Moyer, the 45-year-old marvel, pitching a gem. Then, the usual.

First, a lucky call. Carl Crawford dragged a bunt down the first-base line in the seventh inning. Moyer made a diving play to snag the ball and toss it to Howard, who barehanded it, only for umpire Tom Hallion to miss the call and pronounce Crawford safe. Dioner Navarro followed with a double. Groundouts drove in Crawford and Navarro. Before Game 2, it had been more than 80 years since a team had drove in a pair of runs in the same World Series inning with groundball outs. The Rays have done it in consecutive games.

Of course, then, this would be theirs. B.J. Upton led off the eighth with a hit, only because shortstop Jimmy Rollins double-clutched. Upton stole second base. Then he swiped third and scored when the throw from Ruiz kicked away. Tie score. Forgone conclusion. Especially after the Phillies' Jayson Werth, on second base with Howard up in the bottom of the eighth, got picked off.

The crowd at Citizens Bank, weary after waiting out a 90-minute rain delay, had lost the energy that in the early innings led to stadium-wide chants of "Eva" at Longoria. That changed with the first bad pitch.

Howell, the lefty whose command of the inside corner against right-handed hitters has made him effective in spite of a fastball that tops out at 88 mph, tried to sneak one by Phillies utility infielder Eric Bruntlett, who usually is as dangerous as a butter knife. Howell missed. The ball caromed off Bruntlett's thigh. Howell castigated himself as Maddon called for Grant Balfour.

The Australian strutted in. He throws nothing but fastballs. They are hard. Usually 96 mph. Shane Victorino tried to bunt through the first and missed.

"He's trying to bunt and give me an out," Balfour said, "and what do I do?"

Balfour got greedy. He wanted to strike out Victorino, keep Bruntlett from advancing to second base, let the Rays hitters snap out of the funk that has seen them score one of their last eight runs on a base hit. Imagine: groundout, groundout, single, bunt, sacrifice fly, groundout, groundout, error. Something had to give with Balfour's guys, if he could just get to their at-bat, just mow down Victorino and move on.

He held the ball too long. When a 96-mph fastball is even a little off, catchers have trouble stopping it. Navarro couldn't get in front of it before it skipped past Victorino's foot and to the backstop. Bruntlett was off and running.

"I'm angry at myself," Balfour said. "We came back and tied it up. I just kick myself because I tried to do too much."

Something intervened. The Rays were supposed to win this, right? The ball hit clean off the backstop and bounced into Navarro's right hand. Divine. Bruntlett was three-quarters of the way to second base. Navarro had made two perfect throws earlier, one of which caught Jimmy Rollins, who was 47 for 50 stealing bases this year.

"I'm pretty sure if I would've made a good throw," Navarro said, "it was going to be really close."

He didn't. The ball screamed past shortstop Jason Bartlett and into center field. Bruntlett scampered to third base. There were no outs. The Phillies had the winning run on third.

Maddon walked the bases loaded and held up five fingers. That stood for the 5-2 defense. Right-fielder Ben Zobrist, a natural shortstop, played directly in front of the second-base bag as the fifth infielder and Upton and Crawford roamed as the outfield duo. If they pulled this one off …

The Rays didn't. Ruiz hit a tapper down the third-base line. Bruntlett raced home. Longoria's underhanded scoop flew over Navarro's head. The Phillies streamed out of their dugout to dance in a pile. The Rays sulked off the field.

As Longoria emerged from the shower, teammate Rocco Baldelli, sensing the crowd about to descend, offered to block it. "It ain't gonna help," Longoria said, "I promise you that."

He had missed a home run by feet in the sixth inning, a towering drive that looked like a surefire two-run shot only to see the Philadelphia night spit it back. It epitomized the Rays' night: what should have been – what usually was – all of a sudden turned horribly wrong.

"They're a scrappy bunch. So are we," Upton said. "We knew the series were going to be exactly like this."

And they know, too, that Game 4 truly is the series' precipice. If the Rays lose, they face Phillies ace Cole Hamels in Game 5. He is 4-0 this postseason and shut them down in the series opener. Their first World Series could end that soon.

Should they win, it will be business as usual, the series guaranteed to return to Tropicana Field, the specter of Hamels finishing them off gone, unless the Phillies decide to pitch him on three days' rest for Game 7. Only once this postseason have the Rays lost back-to-back games, and following the second, they bounced back with the biggest win of their lives, in Game 7 of the American League Championship Series against Boston.

So, no, this isn't daunting to Tampa Bay, even though it's not hitting and its relief pitching is all over the place and its catcher botched an important throw. Sunday is another day, one that will begin with the Rays making sure that damn monkey loses its head.

They can't afford to follow suit.