DETROIT -- The Tigers couldn't avoid the 90-loss mark to finish off the season. But in the end, a 29-game improvement will do as a building block.
"We've done some pretty good things here, don't get me wrong," manager Alan Trammell said after Sunday's 7-4 loss to the Devil Rays. "But we don't want to get content."
The Tigers already started answering one of Trammell's points about late-inning production. Facing a 7-2 deficit in the ninth inning, they strung together a two-run rally and put the potential tying run on deck before falling for the final time in 2004.
Tampa Bay's offensive splurge ensured the Tigers wouldn't end the season on a victorious note. But considering how they ended last season celebrating like a playoff team because they avoided a modern record of 120 losses, they'll take it with a smile.
"It just wasn't meant to be," Dmitri Young said of the team's finish. "Saying that, where we were the last two years, where we are now and where we're headed, we can hold our heads up high."
So can the Devil Rays, whose four-run third inning put them on their way to their first 70-win season in franchise history.
Nate Robertson (12-10) was already assured of leading the team in victories going into the final start of his breakthrough season. Sunday's loss, however, meant he ended the year winless in his final five starts. His 10 hits allowed tied a personal season high and helped plate five earned runs despite six strikeouts that gave him 155 for the season. Combined with Jeremy Bonderman's 168 strikeouts, Detroit had two pitchers top 150 for the first time since Joe Coleman and Mickey Lolich in 1974.
Robertson's season mirrored that of the team -- a good feeling on the whole, but an end that will stick with him.
Nate Robertson / P
Weight: 215 lbs
Bats: R / Throws: L
"You know what, I'll look back and think of all the times I think I could've done better," Robertson said. "I expect too much out of myself, and that just comes from who I am. But overall, I have to look at the big picture in the end."
Half of those hits Robertson allowed Sunday came in the third, when the first four Devil Rays to the plate reached base. Aubrey Huff and Jose Cruz Jr. hit RBI singles before Matt Diaz ripped a one-out, two-run triple to the wall in right-center field.
With RBI singles from Rocco Baldelli and Geoff Blum in the first and second inning, respectively, Tampa Bay had a 6-0 lead after three innings.
"He was making good pitches today," catcher Brandon Inge said. "They hit changeups, they hit sliders, fastballs. He was mixing everything up. It was just one of those days."
Robertson couldn't figure it out, either. "I felt great today," he said. "Today was a tough-break day. I think there were two pitches I wish I could take back that I didn't hit my spot on. Other than that, there was some stuff off the end of the bat. It was a bad day."
Rays spot starter John Halama (7-6) held Detroit to two runs despite allowing seven hits in his five innings of work. Inge's solo homer put the Tigers on the scoreboard in the fourth, but Detroit's best opportunity to get back in the game came with three straight singles from Ryan Raburn, Nook Logan and Omar Infante leading off the bottom of the fifth.
Bobby Higginson / RF
Weight: 195 lbs
Bats: L / Throws: R
Halama put Bobby Higginson in an 0-2 hole before inducing a double-play grounder to short, drawing a scattering of boos from the 22,471 in attendance. Craig Monroe then grounded out to first.
The boos were somewhat louder for Higginson's game-ending groundout after Detroit rallied in the ninth. Logan and Infante had extended the game with back-to-back two-out RBI triples, scoring Logan and Jason Smith.
The Tigers finished the season at 72-90, their best record since 2000. At 29 games over their 2003 record, Detroit came within four games of the American League record for biggest improvement.
Now, they're looking for more.
"Good things are going to happen the next two or three years here," Ivan Rodriguez said, "and I think we did a great job this year."
Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.