ST. PETERSBURG -- Denard Span lingered just off the playing field at Tropicana Field on Saturday evening and watched as the Rays erupted into a jumping huddle before him, celebrating their first postseason berth. The Twins' rookie right fielder saw the excitement on the Rays' faces and tried to soak in the feeling of the jubilant celebration. It's the kind of party that Span and his teammates are still hoping to take part in this season, although their chances of clinching a playoff spot of their own seemed considerably less likely following the club's 7-2 loss to the Rays.
The loss dropped the Twins to three games behind the White Sox in the American League Central race, pending the results of Chicago's contest against the Royals. And with only seven games remaining in the regular season for Minnesota, time to make up ground is quickly starting to run out. "Seeing that kind of celebration just made me want to work even harder," Span said. "It seemed like a good feeling for those guys. I was just out there to kind of motivate myself just to keep pushing, because it's not over for us yet." Things aren't over, but the window for a Twins comeback is closing. The Twins had plenty of chances to score off Rays starter Scott Kazmir on Saturday, leaving many "what ifs" after the loss due. Minnesota looked to be putting together a competitive effort early -- if not for a little nuisance that has plagued them in the past as well, the Tropicana Field roof. The game was still scoreless with two outs in the third inning when Twins starter Kevin Slowey was facing Carlos Pena with runners on first and third. Slowey got Pena to lift a high popup down the first-base line. But the ball struck one of the roof's catwalks on its descent, sending it back toward home plate, where Joe Mauer made the catch. The ball was ruled to have hit the catwalk in foul territory, meaning it was a dead ball. Pena made use of the break, drilling a line shot to the right-field wall for a two-run double. It put the Rays up, 2-0. "You can say 'What if?' but we know the rules and it's just a bad break there," manager Ron Gardenhire said. "I was watching it the whole way, hoping it was going to come down and be an out. It just nicked that little wire up there, and there you have it. It's the same way in the Metrodome." The Twins still looked like they might strike back the very next inning. They loaded the bases with no outs in the fourth as Mauer singled, Morneau doubled and Michael Cuddyer was hit by a pitch. That's when the club found a new kind of trouble -- this time, on the basepaths. Delmon Young hit a fly ball to shallow center field that Fernando Perez closed in on for a catch. Third-base coach Scott Ullger advised Mauer not to run on the potential sac fly, but the catcher took a few steps toward home plate. Mauer's few steps were enough to get Morneau to think that Mauer was heading home, and he started making movement toward third base. But when he realized Mauer was staying put, he had to retreat, and it was too late. The Rays threw Morneau out and Young's fly ball turned into a double play. "It was an aggressive mistake instead of being tentative," Morneau said. "Obviously, it's still a mistake, but it's being too aggressive and trying to make something happen." The Twins wouldn't tally a run in the inning as Brendan Harris flew out to right field for the final out. And from there, things would only spiral downward for the Twins. Kazmir held the Twins scoreless for his six innings, allowing just five hits. He gave the sold-out crowd of 36,048 that was in attendance on Saturday plenty to cheer about, as they witnessed the Rays capture the first playoff berth in the franchise's 11-year history. And while Kazmir was good despite being forced out early, the Twins were left to fill their share of innings following another short outing from their starter. A high pitch-count early in the contest and some trouble in the fifth forced Slowey (12-11) out after just 4 1/3 innings, having given up five runs. It was the seventh time in the last nine games that a Twins starting pitcher hasn't made it past the fifth inning. "We get behind and now it's their day," Gardenhire said of the Rays. "Well deserved by that ballclub over there. A lot of things go their way -- they play the game the right way, they hustle. They've got a lot of very good athletes over there and a lot of talented people over there, and that's why they are winning like they are." Although they have an uphill battle of their own to wage, the Twins still hold out hope that perhaps they can finish the year with a similar celebration. "This was not for our division, we can still win our division," Morneau said. "Obviously, we have to come back and win tomorrow. We have a big series coming up at home [vs. Chicago]. And I don't want to watch another team celebrate in front of us, that's for sure."
Kelly Thesier is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.