In dropping to 43-40, the Rays have lost eight of their last 11 games to fall to seven games behind the AL East-leading Yankees.
Fueling the Indians' attack were three solo homers and a solid pitching performance by starter Josh Tomlin, who held the Rays to one run on two hits in seven innings to earn his fifth win of the season.
The Rays play in the AL East, the division long regarded as baseball's toughest and most prestigious. Given the way Tampa Bay has played against the Central this season, Joe Maddon was asked if that division is in fact the new East.
"It must be," the Rays manager replied. "We're all messed up. ... We've had a hard time with [the Central]. ... [The division has] good pitching. We've seen good pitching with the White Sox, tonight with these guys. Detroit has pitched well against us. Kansas City pitched well against us. We've been pitched at well. That's part of the gig with us. We're not going to just bludgeon you. We've got to score some runs, and this division has pretty much kept us in check offensively."
Jeremy Hellickson started for the Rays, making his first start since having to leave Saturday's game against the Tigers after getting hit on his right leg by a Prince Fielder line drive. And the right-hander got off to a rough start, allowing solo home runs to Shin-Soo Choo and Michael Brantley in the first two innings.
"You never want to give up a home run to the leadoff guy of the game," Hellickson said of Choo's blast. "I just have to come out and make better pitches early."
Hellickson settled down to add four scoreless innings to his line, giving him his ninth quality start of the season. Nevertheless, he took his fifth loss.
"Started off pretty rough, once I started commanding my fastball, I started settling down," said Hellickson, who noted that his right leg did not bother him.
The Rays managed to push a run across in the fifth when Will Rhymes tripled off Tomlin and scored on Jose Molina's groundout to shortstop. But Tomlin proved to be too much for the Rays.
Indians manager Manny Acta noted that "the only way you can beat [the Rays] is out-pitching them."
"Their pitching is so good that, even when [Hellickson] didn't have his best command, he only allowed two runs on two homers," Acta said. "Tomlin did a pretty good job of controlling the at-bats the whole game."
Maddon called Tomlin a "pitcher."
"He pitches well," Maddon said. "He locates his fastball. He'll make the righties expand. He throws a little bit of a changeup down and away to the lefties. You cannot cooperate with him. You've got to make him come over the plate. And whenever he did, it appeared from the side, he was coming over the edges.
"... He was sharp. And then again, probably knowing that we have not been too prodigious offensively, he may have had a little more confidence making those pitches. But we'll get him eventually."
Nobody on the Rays personifies the Rays offensive struggles more than Luke Scott, who went 0-for-3 to establish a team record by going hitless in his last 39 at-bats. Jose Cruz Jr. held the record at 0-for-37. Eugenio Velez holds the Major League mark with a 46-at-bat hitless streak during the 2010-11 seasons.
Maddon said he felt bad for the struggling slugger.
"Of course I do," Maddon said. "But furthermore, this guy has been a total pro, he's had a lot of struggles but he comes back in and he immediately starts rooting for the next guy. I mean immediately. He doesn't throw stuff. He's not out of control. Has a feel for what's going on.
"Obviously, he hates it. But while he's going through a very tough moment, he has been a very good teammate and we all appreciate that about him. And that does matter. It's going to turn. When it does turn there's going to be a lot of positives coming our way."