NEW YORK -- What could have been a defining moment for this year's Rays turned into a crushing 7-5 loss to the Yankees on Saturday afternoon at Yankee Stadium.
Tampa Bay (38-37) could not hold a two-run lead en route to the loss that dropped it into a tie with Toronto in the basement of the American League East.
"Well, this has just been on that pile of tough ones -- there's been a lot of them, way too many," said Rays manager Joe Maddon about the nature of Saturday's loss. "That's the difference between us really being one of the elite right now and not. We have just permitted too many late games to get away from us."
Hoping to protect a 5-3 lead, Joel Peralta entered the game for the Rays to pitch the seventh, but he struggled, retiring just one batter before giving way to Jake McGee with the bases loaded.
"I couldn't find the strike zone," Peralta said. "None of those pitches were working for me today. I was trying really hard to throw the ball over the plate and I couldn't find a way to do it. So, bad day."
McGee struck out Jayson Nix for the second out before walking David Adams to force in a run. Pinch-hitter Vernon Wells then doubled to right-center field to empty the bases and give the Yankees a 7-5 lead.
"I'm thankful [Yankees manager Joe Girardi] allowed me to get in that situation," Wells said. "Anytime you can make the stadium go crazy late in games, that's a fun part about being here. We haven't won too many games like that lately."
McGee explained that he was trying to pitch up and away to Wells.
"He swung through a pitch away earlier in the at-bat," McGee said. "So I figured if I make him beat me away -- I don't want to miss with a pitch middle in and have him turn on it in that situation.
"It's really frustrating, especially when you're so close to getting out of the inning. If I make a pitch right there or if I even just make the hitter before put the ball in play, we have a chance."
This bullpen meltdown was especially disappointing given the lift that Wil Myers gave the team with one swing of his bat in the sixth, when he drove a 1-2 pitch from CC Sabathia into the right-field stands for a grand slam.
Tampa Bay has suffered some gut-wrenching defeats this season, and Peralta called Saturday's loss "the toughest one" of the campaign.
"After what Myers did against CC and [having] a two-run lead in the seventh inning, [it's tough]," Peralta said.
Uncharacteristic of how Maddon operates, he took a moment to talk with McGee and Peralta in the clubhouse, carrying his chips and salsa with him while he sat at each pitcher's locker for his visits. When asked about the tact, Maddon noted: "That was a tough one."
Myers' first Major League home run gave the Rays a 5-3 lead, but it wasn't enough on an afternoon that saw Tampa Bay make several critical blunders.
Evan Longoria gave the Rays a 1-0 lead when he led off the second with his 17th homer of the season on an 0-1 pitch from Sabathia.
Alex Colome started for the Rays, and the 24-year-old right-hander pitched two scoreless frames before becoming his own worst enemy in the third.
Brett Gardner reached base after grounding to first because Colome mishandled first baseman James Loney's toss. That play festered until the Yankees had the bases loaded with one out.
Colome struck out Lyle Overbay with a 3-2 changeup, leaving Zoilo Almonte as the hurdle that needed to be crossed if Colome was to escape the inning.
After getting ahead in the count 1-2, Colome went with a cutter, and the Yankees' rookie rerouted the 88-mph pitch into center field for a two-run single to put the Yankees ahead.
"I had a lot of confidence after striking [Overbay] out on a 3-2 changeup," Colome said. "That was the best pitch that I had going on today. But I missed the spot with Almonte, and he got the base hit."
Colome's error was just the second error this season by a Rays pitcher. But it wouldn't be the only critical error committed Saturday.
With one out in the fifth and Robinson Cano on first, Colome got Travis Hafner to roll over to first for what appeared to be an easy double play. Unfortunately for Colome and the the Rays, Loney's throw sailed wide to Longoria covering at second on the shift. Colome then walked Overbay to load the bases before walking Almonte to force home the Yankees' third run.
Almonte's walk chased Colome. Alex Torres took over and escaped the jam with no further damage, setting up Myers' go-ahead blast.
None of the runs the Yankees scored against Colome were earned and he did not draw a decision.
Rays pitchers issued a season-high nine walks, their most in a nine-inning game since July 18, 2012, when the Yankees walked nine times.
"The walks really kicked our butt today," Maddon said. "It was going very well after Myers showed his willpower right there, and that got us back on top. I really felt good. Joel setting up for that part of the batting order was perfect and then of course Jake, and then I was going to go to Fernando [Rodney]. ... We just walked way too many guys."
Bill Chastain is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.