ST. PETERSBURG -- They were on the brink of winning a road series against one of the American League’s top teams. They were one strike away from forcing extra innings. Instead, the Angels were dealt a frustrating 5-4 defeat by the Rays on Thursday afternoon at Tropicana Field when Manuel Margot blooped a two-out, two-strike RBI single in the ninth off closer Carlos Estévez.
“It’s tough, man,’’ said outfielder Jo Adell, who gave his team a 4-2 lead with a two-run homer in the sixth inning. “Especially because everybody in this clubhouse wants to win. Stuff like this happens and the Rays have a hell of a program. But for us, we thought we had that in the bag. So that’s a tough one.’’
The Angels lamented their missed opportunities, and manager Phil Nevin said his team could have potentially closed it out before the ball was handed to Estévez.
With Los Angeles leading, 4-3, in the ninth, Michael Stefanic smacked a one-out single, then went to third on Randal Grichuk’s double. With two runners in scoring position, the Rays played the infield up, but rookie Zach Neto couldn’t deliver, bouncing a grounder to third that Curtis Mead gobbled up to nab Stefanic at the plate. With runners on the corners, Brandon Drury bounced out to pitcher Andrew Kittredge.
“This game isn’t easy,’’ Nevin said. “But when you get opportunities to get runs home and don’t do it, [protecting a one-run lead] is a tough assignment. It’s tough to close a game against a really good lineup. So you’ve got to find ways to get those runs in. That’s what good teams do.’’
The Angels haven’t won a series at Tropicana Field since taking three of four from July 4-7, 2016.
“I think it was the best we've played for a while for three days, and to just come out with one win, it's very frustrating,’’ Nevin said. “This is a tough place to play -- just the building, it's just different. You can look at their home record and don't need to go any further than that. Not to mention they're a really, really good team. Well coached. They do the right things. There's a reason why they're in the playoffs for the fifth straight year.’’
Just like there are many reasons -- some on display during the ninth inning -- why the Angels have struggled down the stretch.
Rays pinch-hitter Harold Ramírez led off the ninth with a liner off the left-field wall. It was hit so hard, leading to a rapid bounce and throw to second, that Ramírez had to stop at first base. Yandy Díaz followed with a sharp bouncer to the hole and Neto quickly ranged to his right for what could have been the start of a spectacular double play. Instead the ball glanced off Neto’s glove and rolled into left field, giving Díaz a base hit and putting the Rays in business.
“It’s a really tough play,’’ Nevin said. “I mean, I know what he’s trying to do. It’s a learning moment for him. You want to get the lead out first rather than trying to make a great double play.
“He’s a dynamic defender. He has been outstanding at shortstop all year. But the surface is different here. The ball scoots off it a lot quicker than it does on grass. It’s one of the reasons this is a really tough place to play. You’re not used to seeing that surface.’’
It put more pressure on Estévez (5-5), who had converted 30 of his 33 save opportunities. A sacrifice fly off the bat of Mead sent pinch-runner Osleivis Basabe to third, and Basabe scored the tying run on Isaac Paredes’ bloop single to left.
Estévez struck out Randy Arozarena, then walked Josh Lowe to load the bases. Estévez had a 1-2 count on Margot, but Margot punched a single to right, well in front of Adell, who never had a chance. The Rays, already a postseason team but chasing the Orioles in the AL East race, could exhale.
Before Estévez’s 29-pitch ninth, the highlight had been provided by Adell, who returned on Tuesday after missing 59 games with a strained left oblique.
“I kind of found my rhythm back today,’’ Adell said.
“Jo missed a lot of time, but he put a big swing on one today in a big spot,’’ Nevin said. “I don’t think he has an all-or-nothing swing any more. There’s more of a thought process to his approach.’’
Nevin was generally pleased with the pitching. Starter Griffin Canning went five innings, allowing two runs on three hits with three walks and seven strikeouts. Jose Marté allowed a run on Margot’s sixth-inning RBI double, but José Soriano and Ben Joyce each pitched a scoreless inning.
“I thought we played pretty well overall,’’ Nevin said. “Then you get to the last inning.’’