Rays try to regroup vs. former World Series foe

TAMPA, Fla. — The Tampa Bay Rays share a sentiment today with immortal comedian W.C. Fields, experiencing a minor variation of his most famous phrase.

On the whole, they’d rather be in Philadelphia.

And that’s really saying something, considering the unpleasant memories the City of Brotherly Love holds following their painful 2008 World Series defeat there.

Now the three-game series against the struggling Phillies that begins tonight in Citizens Bank Park looks almost like a pleasure trip.

There’s certainly little good for the Rays to remember about their visit to the Nation’s Capital, which ended Thursday night with a 5-2 loss to Washington in the rubber match of a frustrating and costly series.

Capital offenses abounded – poor fielding, mental lapses, a lack of timely hitting and the lingering controversy surrounding reliever Joel Peralta, who once again found himself in the middle of it all.

Several hours before game time, Peralta learned he would be suspended for eight games for being caught with pine tar in his glove Tuesday night, igniting a war of words between Tampa Bay manager Joe Maddon and Nationals skipper Davey Johnson that dominated the three-game set.

In retrospect, Peralta might wish he hadn’t decided to appeal the verdict from the league office. Doing so made him eligible to pitch Thursday and he wound up yielding a two-out, two-run double in the sixth that broke a 2-2 tie and catapulted the home club to victory.

It was a bitter twist for the Rays and their valuable set-up man, who, only one night earlier, retired the only two members of his former team that he faced. And Peralta seemed on track for a perfect performance when he got the first two outs Thursday after relieving struggling rookie starter Matt Moore.

But the eighth batter in the lineup, Jesus Flores, swatted a double to left on his first pitch. Maddon then ordered an intentional walk of dangerous pinch-hitter Adam LaRoche to get to switch-hitting leadoff man Danny Espinosa – a .133 batter with runners in scoring position and just .188 from the left side.

The strategy backfired, however, as Espinosa lined a double to right, ultimately saddling Peralta with the loss – the worst scenario imaginable given the events leading up to that moment.

The gritty veteran had told Maddon he wanted to pitch again if the situation arose in the third game, and the manager later told reporters he liked Peralta in that clutch situation. “(It) was based on situational stuff, because they were going to pinch-hit once the game was tied,” Maddon said. “At that point, you knew the lefties were going to come up there, and I liked (Peralta) on all those guys.”

But pitching Peralta also carried the risk of undoing his vindicating performance from Wednesday night, against the team he played for in 2010. And that’s unfortunately how it played out. The normally gregarious, upbeat right-hander declined to speak with reporters following the game, an indication of how difficult the turn of events was on him.

Maddon did his best to stand up for and deflect attention away from Peralta following the discovery of pine tar on his glove Tuesday night. His exchange of barbs with Johnson – spilling over into the second day of the series – served that purpose. But in the end, the Nationals had the final word, courtesy of Espinosa’s bat.

Of course, the loss was hardly just on Peralta. Moore, following three straight strong starts, showed up without his recent fastball command. With a 1-0 lead in the third, the left-hander walked Espinosa and Bryce Harper with none out, and they wound up on second and third with one out following a double steal.

That’s when centerfielder B.J. Upton contributed a gaffe that changed the complexion of the game. He raced in and caught Michael Moore’s shallow fly ball, but seemed to lose track of the fact that Espinosa was on third waiting to tag up. Upton, who possesses a strong arm, took several steps with the ball and then – having lost valuable time – made a weak throw to the plate, allowing the tying run to score.

A good throw would have ended the inning with a double play. Instead, Ian Desmond followed with a single to center to score Harper, giving the Nats a 2-1 lead. And to make matters worse, normally rock-solid first baseman Carlos Pena held onto the ball in the infield, unaware that Desmond was advancing to second.

That mental error didn’t cause any further damage, but it was one more defensive miscue in a season that has become uncharacteristically full of them.

The Rays are tied with Baltimore for most errors committed in the American League with 60 – one of which led to their 3-2 loss to Washington the night before, undercutting a stellar big-league debut by Durham call-up Chris Archer.

In the bottom of the second, third baseman Sean Rodriguez let a throw tip off his glove on what would have been a key out at third. Instead, the ball rolled slowly into the Tampa Bay dugout, with catcher Jose Molina arriving too late to stop it. Harper was allowed to go home for a 2-0 lead, scoring a run that eventually proved to be the difference.

The only good news for the Rays came in the opener, when David Price pitched a strong seven innings to pace a 5-4 win and improve to 9-4 with a 3.06 ERA. Yet, even that game was coated in bad news – starting out prior to the game with word that third starter Jeremy Hellickson was going to the 15-day disabled list with shoulder fatigue and left-handed slugger Matt Joyce was sitting out with back stiffness.

The absence of Joyce throughout the series was keenly felt, but no more so than Thursday night when the Rays loaded the bases with two outs in the seventh, hoping to chip away at their two-run deficit.

With Joyce still unavailable, Maddon sent in left-handed Will Rhymes, a .228 hitter, and Rhymes struck out to end what would be Tampa Bay’s final threat.

So now it’s on to Philly, with the Rays hoping for a change in fortune. They tote a 38-31 record, sitting 3 1/2 games behind the Yankees (41-27) in the AL East and a game behind the second-place Orioles (39-30).

The Phillies are dead last in the NL East with a record of 33-38 and lost Thursday night 4-1 to the visiting Rockies.

That makes this an ideal opportunity for the Rays, and James Shields (7-4, 3.72 ERA) will try to cash in against left-hander Cliff Lee (0-3, 3.48). Saturday’s game pits Alex Cobb (3-3, 3.82) against righty Kyle Kendrick (2-7, 5.29) and Sunday’s finale showcases two excellent lefties: Price vs. Cole Hamels (10-3, 3.25).

The Rays could get a boost from the return of Jeff Keppinger, who’s coming off the DL after suffering a broken toe from a foul ball that struck him in the dugout. The second baseman was hitting .295 at the time of his injury, .417 against lefthanders.

The last time the Rays visited Philadelphia was in 2009, when they split a pair of exhibition games. But the memory that lingers is from 2008, when they traveled there with the World Series tied 1-1 and proceeded to lose three straight in miserably cold and rainy conditions. Overall, they’ve won five of six regular season series against the Phillies and are 12-6 overall head-to-head.

A good showing now might erase some of the sting from a D.C. trip the Rays – and their besieged reliever – would just as soon forget.