MINNEAPOLIS -- When a lead slips away in the late innings, it's always easy to blame the reliever who gave it away. But sometimes it makes more sense to look at why the lead wasn't bigger in the first place.
The Rays squandered a couple of key scoring chances before Joel Peralta gave up two home runs, including a three-run shot by rookie Josmil Pinto with two outs in the bottom of the eighth, to give the Twins a shocking 6-4 victory over the Rays on Sunday afternoon at Target Field.
Since Texas lost, too, the Rays and Rangers remained tied atop the AL Wild Card standings, but the Indians -- who beat the White Sox Sunday after a long rain delay -- are just a half game behind. The Rays return home to open a four-game series against Texas on Monday at Tropicana Field.
"We should have won that game easily," Rays manager Joe Maddon said. "We had plenty of opportunities to score more runs -- it wasn't just about giving up the four in the eighth."
After Peralta retired the first two batters of the inning, Ryan Doumit hit a solo shot to right to cut the Rays' lead to 3-2. Trevor Plouffe singled and Josh Willingham walked to bring up Pinto, who hit an 0-1 splitter into the bullpen in left-center field.
"When I hit the ball, I wasn't sure if it was going to go," Pinto said through interpreter Chris Colabello. "I knew I made good contact, and I was running hard when I looked up and saw it go out. I was happy for the team and immediately started thinking about how we'd go out and get three outs."
All three hits in the inning came on offspeed pitches that Peralta left up in the zone, but he insisted after the game that fatigue wasn't an issue.
"Today I felt really good. Like the other night, my fastball was there," Peralta said. "Just, for some reason, my breaking stuff didn't work today."
Peralta now has three losses in his last six appearances, dating to a Sept. 6 defeat at Seattle. But Maddon indicated he still has complete confidence in his top right-handed setup man and isn't going to deviate from the plan that's gotten the Rays this far.
"This is who we are, and for us to go deep into the playoffs, it pretty much has to work this way," Maddon said. "You only try to reinvent right now if you have injury. Otherwise, you have to stay with the tested guys, and I have all the faith in the world he's going to be fine. This time of the year, you really need to stay with the formula that you believe is the formula for success. You're always flexible, but for me to move things around would be based on injury rather than performance right now."
The Rays could have taken a much bigger cushion into the eighth inning if they'd hit better in clutch situations. They continued a disturbing trend of late, going 0-for-3 with the bases loaded and 1-for-5 with runners in scoring position. Doumit made a leaping catch of a Delmon Young drive at the right field wall with two out and the bases loaded in the fifth, and after the Rays had tacked on an insurance run in the eighth, pinch-hitters Jose Lobaton and David DeJesus flied out with the bases loaded to end the threat.
It all adds up to another frustrating loss at the time of the season when the Rays can't afford too many more blown opportunities.
"We've had way too many missteps already this year. That's what got us in this position," Maddon said. "We have played well enough to be a much better team, record-wise, than we are right now. We just haven't closed the deal. And it's not just on the latter part of the bullpen. Scoring runs consistently with runners in scoring position is a big part of it, too. "
Not that you could blame the Rays if they thought four runs would be enough against the punchless Twins. After posting back-to-back shutouts to start the series, the Rays got six more scoreless innings from starter David Price, running Tampa Bay's scoreless streak to 27 innings. That broke the franchise record for the longest scoreless streak, which was set earlier this season at 25 innings.
The shutout bid ended in the seventh inning when the Twins loaded the bases on a single and two walks against Price. Reliever Jake McGee then surrendered a two-run single to Chris Parmelee that pulled the Twins to within one. McGee struck out the next two batters to end the frame.
The Rays benefitted from an apparent missed call at first base in the fourth inning and immediately took advantage to grab a 2-0 lead. After Ben Zobrist led off with a single, Twins starter Pedro Hernandez induced a ground ball to third from Evan Longoria. Plouffe threw to second to retire Zobrist, and Brian Dozier's relay appeared to nip Longoria at first base.
However, umpire Greg Gibson called Longoria safe, and Wil Myers drilled the next pitch from Hernandez for a mammoth two-run homer, his 12th of the season, to put the Rays on the board. The blast, estimated at 440 feet, landed in the second deck above the bullpens in left-center field.
"When that left, that was zero gravity," said Maddon, who called it the longest home run he's seen this year. "I mean, that was properly struck."
Sean Rodriguez led off the fifth inning with his fourth homer of the year to build the lead to 3-0. After the Twins pulled within one, the Rays tacked on an insurance run in the eighth on an RBI single by James Loney.
A victory looked pretty much assured when Peralta retired the first two batters in the bottom of the eighth. Instead, the Twins rallied, and the veteran reliever was left to figure out what he could learn from the defeat.
"You don't want to get used to stuff like this, but you have to be smart enough to put it behind you," Peralta said. "You don't want to have that on your mind when you go back out there, and I know they're going to give me the ball, so I've got to forget and learn from it."
Patrick Donnelly is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.