ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — Several Red Sox players were in the dugout on Tuesday afternoon waiting for the start of batting practice when the topic of playing at quirky Tropicana Field came up.
Mike Napoli said he enjoyed hitting at the domed stadium but didn’t like playing in the field.
“Stuff always happens here,” he said.
A few hours later, his words proved prophetic. Napoli lost a popup in the roof and it fell in for a two-run single in the fourth inning. That was the difference for the Tampa Bay Rays in a 5-3 victory against the Sox.
“I didn’t make the play,” Napoli said. “Saw it up, saw it, and overran it.”
It was the latest blow for the sliding Red Sox, who have lost three straight, six of seven, and nine of their last 11 games. The momentum built from a 20-8 start has nearly been cast away.
At 22-17, the Red Sox are now three games behind the Yankees. The Rays have won six straight.
With one out and runners on first and second in a 3-3 game, John Lackey got Desmond Jennings to hit a fly ball to center field. Both runners tagged up on the weak arm of Jacoby Ellsbury.
Matt Joyce was next and he hit a fastball up in the air. Napoli came in and the ball landed behind him untouched. Both runners scored.
Napoli was playing first base at the Trop for only the fourth time in his career, the first time since June 1, 2011. The stadium, with its concentric rings of catwalks, spotlights, and off-white fabric roof can be difficult for an experienced fielder.
“I’ve played here before,” Napoli said. “It’s a white roof. But I saw the ball. I just overran it.”
Dustin Pedroia, who was a few feet from Napoli, tried to claim responsibility.
“I’ve played lot of games at this field. Maybe I ran to it, took my eye off it, and tried to find it again. I couldn’t find it. It’s probably an easier play for me than Nap because a lefthanded hitter hit and I had a better angle. I just took my eye off it and I know better than to do that.”
Napoli wasn’t buying it.
“It’s a long way for him to run,” he said. “It’s a play I should have made and I didn’t. I feel bad because John’s out there, he gets guy to pop up in a tie ballgame.”
Said Lackey: “It’s frustrating, for sure. I made a pitch and we didn’t get an out.”
The Rays have learned how to make their park work to their advantage. Jose Molina and Yunel Escobar were running hard on the popup and scored without the Red Sox having a play.
“We benefited from the roof again,” manager Joe Maddon said. “How about that?”
Lackey left the game in the fifth inning having allowed five runs on nine hits. Five starts is not a big percentage of a full season. But opponents are 16 of 69 (.231) against Lackey from the windup, 15 of 42 (.357) when he pitches from the stretch.
“You can’t just look at numbers,” he said. “You’ve got to actually look at the hits and look at the results a little bit, you know?”
Lackey, for the first time this season, grew irritated at some of the questions he was asked, especially ones that seemed to make light of the situation.
It was a tough loss in the first game of a nine-game road trip. Now the Sox face David Price on Wednesday.
"We've got to start playing better," Pedroia said.