ST. PETERSBURG -- Tampa Bay prides itself on pitching and defense, and the model has worked -- you can look it up.
Only this season, some concerning errors have thrown a pickle into the punch bowl. Saturday, the Rays committed two more in a 2-1 loss to the Orioles, wasting a quality start by right-hander Jeremy Hellickson.
The loss allowed the Orioles to move back into a tie with the Rays for first place in the American League East at 30-23, while snapping their losing streak at six games.
Hellickson went to the seventh inning Saturday looking his best. He had made one mistake by allowing Endy Chavez to hit a solo home run in the third. And the defense had looked sharp.
Ben Zobrist crashed into the wall in right to rob Wilson Betemit of extra bases in the fourth, preventing a run from scoring in the process. And third baseman Drew Sutton managed to stab a liner by Adam Jones to end the sixth.
All of that good karma turned and headed in the opposite direction in the seventh. Mark Reynolds slapped a one-out double off the left-field wall, before Hellickson struck out Betemit for the second out. Ryan Flaherty then reached base on catcher's interference by Jose Lobaton -- the Rays' first error of the inning and the afternoon, prompting Rays manager Joe Maddon to call for Jake McGee to enter the game.
McGee has been the closest thing the Rays have to a middle-of-the-game closer. The left-hander has been dominant, entering the game with a trail of nine scoreless appearances behind him. And he did his job Saturday, getting strike one on Robert Andino before Andino chopped the second pitch to third. Sutton fielded the ball on the run, but threw wild to first baseman Carlos Pena, allowing Reynolds to score on the play. While Zobrist -- backing up first on the play -- threw out the trail runner trying to score, the damage had been done.
The Rays have now made 45 errors in 53 games to rank 13th among 14 American League teams.
"We're making too many mistakes out there," Maddon said. "The catcher's interference out there, that's an awkward play. If I were to look at the video, it just looked like Flaherty's swing was really late, just trying to protect. That's the same exact thing that happened to [Chris] Gimenez in Texas, a late, protective swing that somehow hits the catcher's mitt.
"And, of course, the play to third base. Sutt's done a great job down there. That's a play he's been able to make and we don't make it. That's how you lose these games. We have to play that play better, but we also have to hit more consistently."
Lobaton's catcher's interference was the fourth of the season for the Rays -- Gimenez has the other three. Since the statistic began being tracked in 1948, the Major League record for one season is five.
The run in the seventh gave the Orioles a 2-1 lead and their starter, Brian Matusz, continued to hold the Rays' bats silent through 7 1/3 innings until Pedro Strop took over with two on. The right-hander uncorked a wild pitch with B.J. Upton hitting to move the runners into scoring position before he walked Upton to load the bases for Zobrist.
The crowd of 21,693 smelled a comeback, but Zobrist swung at the first pitch and grounded into an inning-ending 4-6-3 double play.
"As a starter, that's my ultimate goal, to go as deep as you can and hand it off to our bullpen, which is doing a great job right now," Matusz said. "I just attacked the zone and got ahead. The Rays were swinging the bats today and I was getting a lot of outs early in the count."
Jim Johnson pitched the ninth, retiring the Rays in order to earn his 17th save of the season.
Adding pressure to the Rays' fielding is their struggling offense. The Rays had a season-low two hits Saturday afternoon and their lowest total since being one-hit at Seattle on July 30.
"We aren't hitting through our mistakes," Maddon said. "And that's why they flare up and why they're really noticeable."
Pena offered a voice of calm for the Rays.
"If you were to categorize every aspect of the game, ideally, we want everything to be going 100 percent at all times," Pena said. "But sometimes it doesn't work that way. We may be a little off, but we'll be back to where we need to be soon."
Pena, who is one of the team's Gold Glove fielders, noted that the current stretch that has seen the team lose four of its last five games isn't the first time they've experienced difficulties.
"At the same time, we're still in first place," Pena said. "That's comforting to know that even though we haven't been playing the best baseball we're capable of playing, we're still on top of the division."
Bill Chastain is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.