ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — The Twins' second-hardest-hit ball on Thursday was a Jorge Polanco's line-drive missile straight up the middle in the first inning, at 107.8 mph too hot for anyone in the infield to field.
And what happened next sort of epitomized the Twins' luck in June.
The all-but-certain base hit glanced off pitcher Yonny Chirinos' glove as it zipped past, then deflected off second-base umpire Jeff Nelson up into the air. When it came down, Rays shortstop Wander Franco grabbed it and flipped it to second baseman Taylor Walls to force out Alex Kirilloff. And as Polanco decelerated as he reached first base, the left hamstring that put him on the injured list for two weeks in May suddenly tightened up again, knocking him out of the game.
"That first inning, that could have been a couple of runs on the board. We hit two rockets, and then Carlos [Correa follows with] a base hit," said mystified Twins manager Rocco Baldelli. "You add that all together, it's like, 'How does that not equal a run or two?' That's how baseball works. But not today."
Not anytime lately, it seems. The Twins didn't score that inning, added only a pair of solo home runs the rest of the way, and left Tropicana Field grouchy after a 4-2 loss to the Rays and getting swept for the first time this season.
"It definitely is a frustrating day. We probably had five to seven more barrels than they did today, and they got the win because they had a little more timely hitting," said hitting coach David Popkins, whose corps collected only 13 hits in 27 innings here. "It's kind of been the story a lot of the year."
The loss was the Twins' fifth straight — and also fifth straight in Florida, after going 1-2 at Miami in April — and finished off a dismally quiet showdown with a fellow division leader. The Twins were outscored 13-3 in the series, have crossed the plate only seven times in six games, and fell below .500, at 31-32, for the first time this season.
Their lead in the AL Central dropped to 1 1⁄2 games over Cleveland and 3 1⁄2 over the White Sox and Tigers.
The Twins amassed six hits in Thursday's finale, their sixth straight game without reaching double digits, but two in the same inning only once, in that scoreless first inning that might not have been scoreless had Polanco's ball not clipped Chirinos' glove. Had that been the case, the ball would have been dead once it touched Nelson, the umpire, with Kirilloff awarded second base and Polanco first.
But "after the deflection off the pitcher, the umpire is basically like a rock on the field," Baldelli shrugged. "Everything that deflects off him then is in play."
Foiled by bad bounces, the Twins' lone runs came on a home run by Correa — his seventh of the year but first since May 13 — and Michael A. Taylor. That wasn't enough against a Rays offense that, after the first 11 hitters were retired meekly by Bailey Ober, who struck out six hitters in a row, suddenly erupted in the fourth inning after Ober issued a two-out walk to Randy Arozarena.
It was costly, because Luke Raley followed with a line drive down the right field line, his second career triple, both of them coming in this series. Ober's next pitch, a slider over the middle, was driven high off the center-field wall by Harold Ramirez, his ninth home run.
"They didn't get very many hits today, but they got 'em exactly when they needed them," Baldelli said. "They took advantage of their opportunities and then they hit a ball over the fence. That's the way you want to string your hits together."
If only the Twins had hits to string together. But once Chirinos, who was making only his second start of the season for Tampa Bay, left after 5⅔ innings, the Twins managed only one hit — Taylor's leadoff home run in the eighth off lefthander Colin Poche — the rest of the way.
"There are things we have to work on. There are things we have to be more patient with," said Max Kepler, whose 0-for-2 leaves him with a .189 average for the season. "I think we're going to hit it on the nose in the near future. At least, I really hope we do, because we work [hard] off the field. But it's baseball."