ARLINGTON -- The sand in the Rays' hourglass is getting precariously close to running out, after a few more grains seeped to the bottom on Thursday night, when the Rangers won, 7-2, at Rangers Ballpark to claim the three-game series.
In defeat, the Rays finished their seven-game road trip with a 4-3 mark to move to 74-62 on the season as they head back to St. Petersburg for a nine-game homestand against the Orioles, Rangers and Red Sox that begins on Friday night.
"We still have to try and get toasty over the next couple of weeks," manager Joe Maddon said. "But at the end of the day, it's still a 4-3 road trip."
Unfortunately for the Rays, the American League Wild Card-leading Yankees won on Thursday night to extend their advantage to 8 1/2 games, and the Rays have just 26 games remaining.
"It's no fun [to be in the Rays' position]," Maddon said. "But I'll tell you one thing. Until the math tells me otherwise, even if we cannot arrive at that point, my goal, the second goal, would be to have the third-best record in the American League, and that's definitely within our reach. ... The math does not permit me to shift my focus [yet]."
The Rays liked their chances on Thursday night, because they were sending Jeff Niemann to the mound, and the 6-foot-9 Texan has been money in the bank since returning from the disabled list on June 20. Included in his sterling results had been a 6-0 mark and 2.45 ERA in his previous eight road starts. But he got off to a rough start.
Niemann found trouble in the second, when David Murphy doubled home the Rangers' first run with one out, then scored on a single by Yorvit Torrealba. One out later, Endy Chavez tripled to drive home Torrealba and give the Rangers a three-run lead.
Texas continued to apply the pressure, loading the bases for Josh Hamilton, but Niemann retired the slugger on a groundout to dodge further damage.
Ian Kinsler led off the Rangers' fifth with a home run to left, and two outs later, Michael Young homered to center field to push the Rangers' lead to five runs.
"I know what happened. I wasn't executing my stuff," Niemann said. "When the ball's up, that allows those guys to really be patient up there and wait for their pitch. It's a small thing, and something you should be able to correct pretty easily, but we just weren't able to do it tonight. And that's why it happened."
Niemann allowed five runs on six hits in five innings to take his sixth loss of the season.
Meanwhile, Texas starter C.J. Wilson was perfect through five innings before Casey Kotchman led off the sixth with a single up the middle that ricocheted off Wilson's left index finger. Kinsler managed to backhand the ball at second, but Kotchman beat the throw to first to break Wilson's spell.
"I will second-guess that Casey Kotchman at-bat for the rest of my career," Wilson said. "How about that?"
Tampa Bay has been no-hit three times in the last three years, and two of those were perfect games. So if anyone is familiar with the sinking feeling associated with seeing the opposing pitcher carve up his club, it's Maddon.
When asked if he had that "no-hit" feeling on Thursday, Maddon said, "He had no-hit stuff."
"We were getting bad swings, and his stuff was jumping," Maddon said. "You'd have to ask him to what extent the ball off his hand affected the rest of his night. Because then he just got real shotgun with everything. Prior to that he was spot on."
After a double play erased Kotchman, Kelly Shoppach homered to left to put the Rays on the scoreboard. And yes, Wilson's finger did bother him.
"It's kind of hard to throw with a numb finger," Wilson said. "It's kind of like trying to drive with only one eye. You don't have that depth perception; you can't get that feel for the ball."
Wilson allowed two runs on two hits in six-plus innings for his 14th win.
Though Thursday night's loss was tough to swallow, there was optimism in the clubhouse.
"All we have to do is win," Niemann said. "We can't be concerned with anything else outside this clubhouse or what we're doing as a team. All we can control now is playing quality baseball. Unfortunately, tonight I didn't really do my part in that."
Bill Chastain is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.