ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — Somehow, the Twins found a way to make their slump hurt even more.
Held without a run or even a serious threat to score for eight innings, the Twins parlayed a hit batter, two stolen bases and a clutch line-drive single by Royce Lewis into a tie game, with their fearsome closer on the mound to keep it that way.
But Jhoan Duran's second pitch was rocketed into the right-field seats by Randy Arozarena, and the Twins watched the game, and their winning record, get taken away in a 2-1 walk-off loss at Tropicana Field.
"That is tough. I mean, it happened so fast that we didn't really get a chance to settle in after scoring," said Rocco Baldelli, manager of a .500 team for the first time this season at 31-31. "We're where we want to be — we're back in the game!"
Only for two pitches, though, both of them 98-mph sinkers. Arozarena fouled off the first one, but he ambushed the second, handing Duran the first walk-off loss of his career.
"He's got power. He's a good hitter," Duran said with a shrug after the Twins' fourth straight loss. "I'm a good pitcher, so I do the best pitch I can and he does the best swing he can, and he won tonight. It's OK."
Not much is OK with the Twins' offense, which has posted a popgun performance for five straight games. The Twins have scored five runs on 26 hits in that time, and until their ninth-inning surprise rally, had scored only one run in their previous 30 innings. They hadn't scored at all for 18 straight innings, hadn't even advanced a runner to third base.
And even when they broke that up by manufacturing the tying run off Rays closer Jason Adam, they still managed to douse any positive vibes in the way that inning ended. After Lewis' run-scoring single, the Twins' first hit since the third inning, they loaded the bases with just one out when Willi Castro was hit by a pitch.
Ryan Jeffers then hit a changeup from Adam 102 mph down the third-base line — but third baseman Isaac Paredes speared it as it went by, then threw from one knee to second baseman Taylor Walls. Somehow Walls pivoted so quickly, he was able to throw out Jeffers at first base, and the Twins catcher fell to the ground from the effort to beat it out.
"Jeffers hits it pretty hard down the line, and their third baseman makes a hell of a play. And then their middle infielder over there [Walls] stays composed and turns it," Baldelli said. "If anyone else that we have hits it, some of our other position players, they probably beat it out. There's a lot of what-ifs on that.
"But we want swings like that. When there's people on base like that and we get swings like that, you're going to score. We just didn't score."
No, they rarely do lately, even when confronted by the — let's say, lesser elements of the Rays' pitching staff.
Shawn Armstrong, for instance, just off the 60-day injured list, was making his second appearance of the season. Cooper Criswell had appeared in seven big league games over three years. Kevin Kelly is a rookie with a 26-inning MLB career. Robert Stephenson, twice traded and once claimed off waivers, had pitched twice for Tampa Bay. Colin Poche has been around for three years, but had allowed 29 baserunners in 21 innings this season.
Yes, it's one thing to get shut out by a probable All-Star like Zach Eflin, as the Twins did Tuesday. But on Wednesday, the Twins failed to score — failed to reach third base until the ninth — against a collection of Rays pitchers seemingly chosen in a beat-the-Twins essay contest.
Pablo López, meanwhile, held one of the game's most powerful lineups in check for seven innings, giving up just five hits, striking out six, and making only one mistake. But Paredes bashed that ill-advised sinker 417 feet into the left-field seats.
Which is how a team that has remained in first place all season became a .500 team.
"We're better than that. We haven't played our best baseball yet," said Carlos Correa, who doesn't absolve himself and his .204 average from blame. "If the best baseball is ahead of us, we're going to be in a good spot. We've got to make the necessary adjustments to get there, and I believe we will."