ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. | Oh, yeah. This is what the Royals needed as they search for a way out of this ongoing morass. A kick in the teeth.
B.J. Upton supplied the kick in the form of a two-run homer with two outs in the eighth inning early Thursday evening, and it snatched a much-needed victory away from the Royals.
Upton’s homer -- and it was a no-doubter against reliever Jamey Wright -- lifted the Tampa Bay Rays to a 3-2 victory that secured a three-game series sweep at Tropicana Field.
“Gosh,” Wright groaned, “I don’t even know what to say. That can’t happen. It just can not happen.”
Except it keeps happening. The Royals, 23-30, have now lost a season-high seven straight games, and 19 of their last 24, and yet, somehow, remain just 5½ games behind first-place Detroit in the American League Central Division.
“They’re all tough right now,” infielder Willie Bloomquist said. “It wasn’t a bad pitch. Down and in...we’re just in a tough stretch. That’s no secret.”
This latest loss saw the Royals waste a gritty performance from Gil Meche, who scrambled through six shutout innings before yielding a leadoff homer in the seventh to Carl Crawford.
“It definitely isn’t fun,” said Meche, who is now winless in his last six starts. “You feel like you’ve got a game, and it’s a tough one when you lose it late like that _ especially when you haven’t won in a while.”
Wright, 0-2, got the call in the eighth inning instead of Juan Cruz because manager Trey Hillman wanted to save Cruz for the ninth. Hillman had already decided not to use Joakim Soria, just back from the disabled list, for a second consecutive game.
“I just want to be careful with back-to-back days,” Hillman said. “We want to ease him into this, both physically and mentally. He just hasn’t done it in a long time.”
Soria threw 13 pitches in Wednesday’s loss for his first appearance since May 7.
“I still liked the matchup,” Hillman said. “I thought Jamey was effective except for throwing a sinker down into the bathead.”
That’s one heck of an exception.
The Royals led 2-1 when Joe Dillon opened the Tampa Bay eighth with a single against Wright. A fine play by Bloomquist, who has just shifted from shortstop to second base, cut down Dillon on Michel Hernandez’s grounder toward the first-base hole.
Wright then struck out Reid Brignac before Upton unloaded on a first-pitch sinker that caught too much of the plate.
“That ball was properly struck,” Rays manager Joe Maddon said. “It had that really good bassy deep sound. It was great to see.”
That’s one view.
“I wanted to crawl under that mound,” Wright said. “It’s just disappointing. We’re in there fighting to get out of this losing streak. We had command of that game the whole game, and then one pitch just spoiled it.”
Tampa Bay starter James Shields, 5-4, has won all five of his career starts against the Royals. He allowed two runs and six hits in eight innings while striking out eight and walking none.
J.P. Howell breezed through a seven-pitch ninth inning for his second save.
The Royals built a 2-0 lead after loading the bases with no outs in the third inning. Alberto Callaspo bounced into a pitcher-catcher-first double play, but Butler produced what has become that rarest of events in the Royals’ attack -- a clutch two-out hit -- by ripping a two-run double into the right-center gap.
That was it, though. The Royals got just one runner past first base over the final six innings. Butler finished with three of their six hits.
Still, it seemed that might be enough when Meche carried a five-hit shutout into the seventh. He then started the inning by hanging a changeup that Crawford yanked over the right-field wall.
It was only the second homer surrendered this year by Meche in 68 1/3 innings, and it came after the Rays stranded 10 runners in the first six innings. John Bale replaced Meche and got the game to the eighth.
Then, well, you know.
“I thought for sure we had that one,” Butler said. “Now, we’ve just got to put this behind us and go on to Toronto. Just forget about Tampa altogether.”
And everything else over the last four weeks.