ST. PETERSBURG -- Even the most demoralizing season can offer a reason or two to hope. Even a struggling team can give its fans a player or two to count on.

For this year's Nationals, Nick Johnson's sure hands at first base and Ron Villone's steady left arm out of the bullpen have been about the nearest they've had to sure things.

Yet, a 4-3 loss Friday against the Rays at Tropicana Field came down to a two-pitch sequence in the eighth inning, a sequence in which Johnson's glove betrayed him and Villone's reliable veneer was dented by Gabe Kapler's go-ahead, pinch-hit home run.

Two pitches. Another loss.

The first pitch was lifted by Kapler down the first-base line with two outs in the eighth and the score tied at 3. Johnson seemed to settle under the popup, but he lunged backward at the last instant and the ball fell to the artificial turf.

"I just missed it, plain and simple," Johnson said. "I saw it the whole way. I just didn't catch it."

The resulting error gave Kapler and the Rays new life. He took advantage by lifting Villone's next pitch just over the rail atop the left-field wall for his second home run of the season.

"He pulled a pitch," Villone said. "No excuses. I lost that game."

Johnson and Villone held themselves accountable for their miscues. Manager Manny Acta saw a bigger picture, one that included numerous lapses on defense and at the plate.

"We just, again, didn't do the little things to win the ballgame," Acta said. "We keep giving outs away, making it 30 instead of 27. We can't afford to do that."

Acta spent about 20 minutes meeting with the team afterward.

"We talked a little bit," Acta said. "It's the same thing. Just keep grinding it out and stay aggressive. Don't sit back. It's a long season still. We just have to continue to be on the attack. I mean, you score three runs in the very first inning, you can't sit around. You've got to continue to go after it. They're a very good ballclub, and we knew that that wasn't going to be enough."

It started out so well, too. Washington jumped on Rays starter Matt Garza for three runs in the first, highlighted by Elijah Dukes' two-run double in his first plate appearance against the team that drafted him in 2002 and traded him to the Nationals in the 2007 offseason.

Dukes, who spent most of his childhood in nearby Tampa, declined comment before and after the game. He was greeted by a smattering of boos from the crowd of 18,273 fans each time he came to the plate.

Dukes also figured in the play that helped the Rays begin their comeback from a three-run deficit. It happened in the second inning, when Tampa Bay catcher Dioner Navarro lined a single to right field with shortstop Ben Zobrist on second.

Dukes, playing right field with Willie Harris in center, came up with the ball and fired a perfect throw to the plate. Catcher Josh Bard caught it on the fly, but even though the throw beat Zobrist by about 10 feet, Bard didn't apply the tag as Zobrist slid around his outstretched mitt.

Acta argued briefly with home-plate umpire Joe West, to no avail.

"It was a very good throw by Elijah," Acta said. "And we should've had the guy out."

Rookie starter Craig Stammen, who struck out a career-best five in his 5 1/3 innings, was under orders from Acta to do all he could to keep Rays speedsters B.J. Upton and Carl Crawford off base.

Stammen veered from the game plan in the third inning by allowing Upton's leadoff single and hitting Crawford in the front shoulder with a pitch.

On the ensuing double steal attempt, Bard threw high trying to get Upton at third base. Upton came out of his slide and trotted home to cut the lead to 3-2.

Stammen left with a lead for the first time in his five career starts. But he also left runners at first and second in the sixth for reliever Joel Hanrahan, and Carlos Pena scored the tying run when Gabe Gross grounded a double past Johnson -- a double that Johnson said he should have fielded.

"A ball down the line, I've got to get in front of it and knock it down," Johnson said. "Bad defense. Just got to clean it up and go get them tomorrow."

Garza never really settled down and was gone after 5 2/3 innings, but the Tampa Bay bullpen held Washington to one hit and a walk the rest of the way. That hit, a leadoff double by Adam Dunn in the eighth, led to a potential scoring opportunity when Dukes' fly ball advanced Dunn to third with one out.

Pinch-runner Alberto Gonzalez took over from Dunn, and Josh Willingham came to the plate with a chance to give the Nationals the lead. Rays right-hander Dan Wheeler got Willingham to pop out to short left, too shallow for Gonzalez to score.

It was a wasted opportunity, a blown chance magnified in importance by the critical two-pitch sequence that set up Kapler's game-winning home run in the bottom of the inning.

"That's something that we've been lacking as of late, that execution with a guy on third with less than two outs," Acta said. "It really hurt us there, because we felt that if we had gotten the lead there, the way [Joe] Beimel and [Mike] MacDougal have been throwing the ball, we've got a chance to get the first one [in the series]."