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OAK@TB: Jennings launches a solo shot to left-center

ST. PETERSBURG -- Having established themselves as kings of the road, the last thing the Rays expected was a .500 homestand.

But that's what transpired at Tropicana Field after the Rays returned from California on Monday night. Saturday afternoon's 4-2 loss to the Athletics served as the final installment of a six-game set in St. Petersburg that saw the Rays (70-57) compile a 3-3 mark.

The break-even record at home followed an 8-2 road trip.

"What's the old adage, if you play .500 at home and .750 on the road you'll be OK?" Rays manager Joe Maddon said, joking.

In defeat, the Rays saw their string of consecutive series wins snapped at five. They had not lost a series since Aug. 3-5 against the Orioles.

Saturday finished a stretch of 19 days without a day off. Despite the loss, the Rays still managed to post a 14-5 mark during that period.

"It's the latter part of a tough stretch for us where we've done really well," Maddon said. "Our body of work for the month is pretty good. You'd like to win every game that you play, but it's not going to work out that way. You want to be perfect every night. It's not going to work.

"So, overall, I'm really pleased with what we've been doing. ... At the end of the day, you can't win them all, but I'm really pleased with our surge right now. And I believe it will continue. We just have to hit with more consistency, I'm certain that's going to happen."

The Rays took the first game of the series behind Alex Cobb's four-hit shutout then they lost the final two, which has allowed the Athletics to creep to within half a game of the Rays, who remained in the top spot in the American League Wild Card race.

"We've shown a propensity to come back after a game like [the first game of the series] and play well, and this isn't the easiest place to play," Athletics manager Bob Melvin said. "They were playing really well and continue to play really well, and it ended up being a real nice series for us."

Starting pitching has paved the way for the Rays' success this season. But Saturday brought an exception to the rule.

Jeremy Hellickson started for the Rays and struggled, allowing a two-run homer to Chris Carter during a 41-pitch first inning -- the longest inning of his Major League career -- and a solo shot to Seth Smith in the third that put the Athletics up, 4-1. The Rays right-hander left after five innings, well on his way to his ninth loss of the season.

Hellickson seemed most upset about Carter's home run that came with two outs when he was seemingly close to escaping the inning with just one run scoring. Instead, Carter hopped on a first-pitch changeup and powered the ball into the left-field stands.

"First and third with no outs and I did a good job of limiting the damage," Hellickson said. "Then to make a pitch like that when I could have gotten out of it, it's pretty frustrating. I was fine in the first inning, just one bad pitch."

Meanwhile, Brandon McCarthy started for the Athletics and handled the Rays' nine with relative ease, allowing two runs on four hits and striking out seven in seven innings to move to 8-4 on the season. Jose Lobaton's sacrifice fly in the second and Desmond Jennings' solo home were the only blemishes on the right-hander's line.

"Today, he seemed right on," Carlos Pena said. "I know it didn't look like he was throwing that hard. You see on the gun it was 91 or 92 [mph], but in reality, his delivery was extremely deceptive, which made it look faster than the gun."

McCarthy's win was his first since returning from the disabled list on Aug. 10. In his last five starts against the Rays, he is 3-0 with a 0.76 ERA.

"He pitches well against us," Maddon said. "He knows how to elevate his fastball. He had a really good curveball and cutter going. He hits his spots. ... Every time we see him, we don't get good swings against him.

"... I know his last several outings he's been hit a little bit. But he's got our swing path number. It's incredible, he misses our bats."

For some reason, the Rays have not been able to rekindle the magic inside Tropicana Field that they enjoyed at the beginning of the season, when they jumped out to a 13-1 record. Since then, the team has gone 22-29 under the dome.

If a silver lining could be found in Saturday's loss, it came in the fact that after enjoying an off-day on Sunday, the team will take off for a six-game road trip against the Rangers and Blue Jays. The Rays are 35-27 away from Tropicana Field this season.

"Overall body of work here, offensively, has not been near as good here as it has been on the road," Maddon said. "The guys just feel more hitterish on the road right now. There's no specific reason as to why. Let's see if we can take our act on the road and start hitting again."

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