Rookie lefty Greg Smith bounced back from his worst start of the season with one of his best, the bottom of the batting order came up with two clutch hits to give him a lead that held into the eighth inning, and lefty reliever Joey Devine made a pitch that should have punctuated a grand escape.
Alas, life isn't so tidy for the A's these days. The pitch Devine delivered with Oakland nursing a one-run lead with the bases loaded and two out in the eighth was turned into a three-run double when left fielder Emil Brown lost it in the lights, and the visiting Rays went on to a 3-2 victory in the second game of a three-game series at McAfee Coliseum.
"I tried to track it as long as I could," Brown said of Dioner Navarro's humpback fly ball. "I just couldn't see it."
The play was originally ruled an error, but the official scorer visited a disconsolate Brown in the A's clubhouse after the game to get his take and eventually changed his ruling to give Navarro a three-run double.
"I don't like to make excuses," Brown said after his conversation with the scorer. "I would have taken it off my face if I could have. I kept trying to go lower and lower, below the lights, but I couldn't get low enough."
So the ball slid past Brown's left side, providing Tampa Bay with enough cushion to survive Frank Thomas' ninth-inning homer -- his third long ball in two nights -- and stick Oakland with its ninth loss in 11 games.
"I'm probably more frustrated and angry than any of those guys are," Brown said, nodding toward Smith and Devine on the other end of the clubhouse. "Our guys made the pitches to get out of the situation. ... I just couldn't see it."
Smith didn't seem all that outwardly frustrated, and he certainly didn't appear to be angry. He allowed that the loss was "tough to swallow" and admitted that it "stings a little," he was speaking strictly in terms of team.
Then again, he's seen this movie a few times. Perhaps he's numb to it all by now.
In his past five starts, Smith been backed by a total of two runs. As a result, he hasn't won since April 24 despite having allowed two earned runs or fewer in three of those outings.
Once 2-0 with a 2.88 ERA over his first four starts, he's now 2-4 with a 3.18 ERA -- and the ERA is that high only because the scorer's postgame change stuck Smith with two earned runs.
"Greg was fantastic," manager Bob Geren said of Smith, who gave up five hits and four walks while striking out four. "It sounds simple, but he really knows how to pitch."
That much was evident throughout the game, in which the Rays had at least one baserunner in every inning save the seventh. He wiggled out of every jam, though, and padded his Major League lead in pickoffs by fooling Jason Bartlett, who had walked, in the top of the fifth.
In the bottom of the frame, Oakland took the lead with a one-out walk to Jack Cust and two-out singles by rookie Gregorio Petit and Rajai Davis. The latter's drive to right was the only blemish on an otherwise brilliant line by Rays starter Scott Kazmir, who struck out eight over seven innings of four-hit, one-walk work.
"Every time I've seen him, he's been tough," Geren said of Kazmir, who improved to 3-1 with a 1.57 ERA. "He's one of the best pitchers in the American League."
Smith, 24, walked Bartlett for the second time to open the eighth, and Carl Crawford followed with a single that chased the starter. With B.J. Upton at the plate and Devine on the mound, Bartlett stole third and Crawford reached second on a throwing error by catcher Kurt Suzuki. After Devine struck out Upton, intentionally walked Carlos Pena and got another strikeout against Evan Longoria, Navarro hit his fateful fly to Brown.
"The guy was pitching his butt off," Navarro said of Devine, who was charged with a blown save. "I was just trying to put the ball in play and make something happen."
Something happened, all right. Something different and dire seems to be happening to the struggling A's nightly.
Smith, however, took a page from Geren's book of affirmations and tried to look at the bright side.
After another young Oakland lefty, Dallas Braden, worked a scoreles top of the ninth, Thomas struck with a leadoff homer off Rays closer Troy Percival. Ryan Sweeney drew a one-out walk to bring the winning run to the plate, but Percival struck out pinch-hitter Daric Barton and got pinch-hitter Rob Bowen on a dribbler in front of the mound to end it.
"The team didn't quit," Smith said. "This team never quits. We keep playing hard, and we'll be back tomorrow doing it again."
Mychael Urban is a national writer for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.