Don't look now, but the Tampa Bay Rays have company an unwelcome visitor that has been trudging upstairs from the AL East cellar and suddenly has made itself right at home.
Their bitter rivals, the Boston Red Sox, have tied them for third place.
And if things don't improve in a hurry against the Detroit Tigers, who come to town for a four-game series starting Thursday night at 7:10, the Rays could tumble down another flight in the division and find land uncomfortably close to the last-place Toronto Blue Jays this weekend.
That's what getting swept in three by the lowly Kansas City Royals will do to you.
After two dismal outings against the Royals this week resulting in losses of 8-0 and 8-2 Tampa Bay enjoyed a glimmer of hope Wednesday afternoon in Kauffman Stadium. They battled back from a 4-0 deficit to tie the score 4-all in the top of the eighth inning on a two-run triple by Ben Zobrist.
It was Zobrist's third hit of the day in four at-bats, resulting in his third RBI.
Unfortunately, there was another three in the mix for Zobrist that undercut his big day at the plate. When the next batter, pinch-hitter Will Rhymes, grounded to short with the infield pulled in, Zobrist bolted for home and was an easy out. That marked the third time in the game he was thrown out on the bases Wednesday, including twice at the plate.
The play loomed particularly large when the next man up, Desmond Jennings, lashed his third hit of the game to left field a knock that would have given Tampa Bay its first lead of the series and a chance to leave town on a high note.
But slumping Hideki Matsui, pinch-hitting for catcher Jose Lobaton, struck out to end the inning with Rhymes and Jennings aboard. And Kansas City proceeded to make the comeback moot in the bottom of the eighth, when Billy Butler blasted a Burke Badenhop pitch into the left-field seats for what proved to be the difference in a 5-4 victory.
So it goes for the Rays, who have now lost 10 of their last 15 games. Just over two weeks ago, they led the AL East by a half a game with a record of 35-25. Now they teeter at 40-35 alongside Boston, and just two games ahead of the Jays (38-37).
The best news they got all day came out of New York, where the Yankees announced that lefthanded ace CC Sabathia was going on the disabled list with a strained groin muscle and reinvigorated southpaw Andy Pettitte suffered a broken ankle pitching against the Indians.
The Rays certainly can use all the help they can get next week when they host the first-place Yankees (46-28) at the Trop. On the other hand, they made a virtual Royals newcomer, lefty Everett Teaford, look like an ace himself Wednesday in only his second big-league start. Called up from Triple-A to pitch, Teaford held Tampa Bay to only two runs on four hits in five innings on a sweltering day that saw temperatures rise past 100 degrees.
His performance topped that of Rays' rookie lefty Matt Moore, who lasted 7.1 innings, yielded four runs two off of solo shots early in the game and was tagged for a season-high 10 hits.
The Rays, meanwhile, had their chances but couldn't cash in. In the top of the sixth, they started off with a Teaford walk to B.J. Upton and a Carlos Pena single against the shift to center. Reliever Kelvin Herrera then gave up a single to Jeff Keppinger, scoring Upton to make it 4-1. But Brooks Conrad, who has had his share of big moments since joining the Rays last week in Philadelphia, grounded into a doubleplay. Zobrist followed with a single to score Pena and cut the deficit to two, but he was thrown out trying to steal second to end the threat.
It was that kind of day for Tampa Bay and ultimately that kind of road trip starting with the tumultuous three-day visit to Washington, improving with the double-header sweep Sunday in Philly and ending with a 3-6 showing overall following the collapse in K.C.
The Rays missed a chance to capitalize on their momentum against the Phillies, getting roughed up by a Royals team that began the series at 31-39 and fourth in the AL Central. Now they have an opportunity to get back on their feet against a struggling Tigers team, third in the Central at 36-38.
Detroit took two of three from Tampa Bay at home early in the season, but hasn't looked nearly as tough since then. The Rays could certainly use a big game from Thursday's starter James Shields (7-4, 3.99) against Max Scherzer (6-5, 5.12) to set a positive tone for the series.
Friday's 7:10 contest will pit David Price (10-4, 2.95) against Tigers' ace and reigning AL Cy Young Award winner Justin Verlander (8-4, 2.52). The Rays haven't announced their starters for Saturday's 7:15 game or Sunday's 1:40 showdown, though the Tigers will go with Rick Porcello (5-4, 4.71) and Drew Smyly (2-3, 4.48).
History hasn't been on their side lately against Detroit. After winning six in a row against the Tigers in 2010, they've gone 3-8 since and have scored only 26 runs in those games. They'll likely regain the services of designated hitter Luke Scott, who has been out the past two weeks with a back injury and completed his rehab assignment in Durham this week.
Scott has struggled at the plate this season, hitting .220. But that's been the story for the Rays as a team. Heading into Thursday's game, they were batting .221 in the month of June, tied for the Dodgers for lowest in the majors. As a point of reference, Tampa Bay's lowest batting average in club history for one month is .230 in May 2002. And their 13 homers as a team this month equal the number hit by Toronto's Jose Bautista.
Having so many players out with injuries including slugger Matt Joyce, who missed most of the road trip with a sore back has certainly played a part in their current woes. Last year's closer, Kyle Farnsworth, could return to the Rays soon, adding depth to the bullpen though Fernando Rodney is in no danger of losing his stopper status with 21 saves to date.
But there's no clear timetable the return of star third baseman Evan Longoria, out since May 1 with a partially torn hamstring. The Rays were 15-8 with Longoria, and now are 25-27 without him. They miss his offense (he was hitting .329 at the time of his injury) and clearly his defense. Tuesday night, they passed the Orioles for most errors committed in the majors with 64, only nine fewer than they made all of last season. They're on track to break the club record of 139 set in 2001.
Perhaps seven games at home now can change their luck. If not, the Red Sox appear ready and willing to move into third place and bump the Rays one flight closer to the division basement.