ST. PETERSBURG -- In a perfect baseball world, the bullpen doesn't stir until at least the seventh inning. That's the way it's been for the Rays the past several years, as the team ascended from doormat to contender.
Alas, the climate has changed. Nowhere was that more apparent than in Thursday afternoon's 9-7 loss to the Twins at Tropicana Field that gave the Rays a 3-4 record on their homestand.
"It's good to win the series," Twins second baseman Brian Dozier said. "It's tough to do, especially against a good team like they are. We got ahead early and they made it close, but that's part of it. So going 3-3 on the road against two pretty good teams and a bunch of good arms -- I'll take it."
The Rays will take a two-game losing streak to Chicago, where they begin a four-game series against the White Sox on Friday night.
Rays manager Joe Maddon could once look at his bullpen and split hairs, while considering suitable late-inning matchups. Lately, every matchup man seems to be a long reliever as the bullpen has served as the bandage to cover for the struggling starting rotation.
The rotation took a hit before Spring Training opened in Port Charlotte when Jeremy Hellickson had right elbow surgery that put him on the shelf until June. Season-ending Tommy John surgery for Matt Moore and a left side oblique strain for Alex Cobb left the Rays with two of their originally scheduled five starters remaining in the rotation.
That void has caught up to them lately, creating the need for a more active bullpen. Entering Thursday afternoon's game, the Rays' relief corps had compiled 39 1/3 innings in the team's past nine games.
The phrase "running on fumes" certainly applies to the exhausted Rays at the moment.
"We had the off-day recently, that helped a little bit, but of course it has put a bite on the boys out there," Maddon said.
So the Rays looked to veteran lefty Erik Bedard for a lift when he started Thursday. Instead they got jilted like a teen crush gone bad.
Bedard threw 41 pitches in the first inning alone, allowing three runs -- including four walks and an RBI double by former Rays outfielder Sam Fuld.
"I couldn't really throw strikes in the first inning," Bedard said. "I was just trying to battle and throw it in the strike zone, but I had a couple of walks in the first and I got better as the game progressed."
Dozier said the Twins knew coming in that Bedard had not been on the mound that much to this point of the season.
"He's always pumped the zone pretty good, but he couldn't throw his fastball for a strike early," Dozier said. "We've been drawing a lot of walks, and not just ones of four straight pitches. So we're just putting together good at-bats."
David DeJesus helped the Rays get back into the game momentarily with a two-run homer in the Rays' three-run second, and Bedard managed to right his ship enough to pitch through the fourth. Heath Bell took over in the fifth, and the results were eerily similar. Fuld added another RBI double and Aaron Hicks poked a three-run homer to right to put the Twins up, 8-3.
"Put it this way: [the pitch] didn't go exactly where I wanted," Bell said. "And it just hung and spun there, and he hit it pretty far. Hopefully that doesn't happen again."
Bell got the hook with two outs in the sixth after he allowed a single to Kurt Suzuki that Bell deflected. The single pushed across another run to put the Twins up 9-3.
"I felt like I should have pitched a lot better than I did," Bell said. "I feel like I let the team down. But the guys rallied around and we almost came back and won. It just kind of shows you how these guys are rallying around every guy. These guys don't give up. ... You just have to forget about it, go on to the next day and try to make good pitches the next time you're out there."
Juan Carlos Oviedo entered the game to make his first appearance with the Rays and his first appearance in a Major League game since Sept. 21, 2011. The right-hander had Tommy John surgery and began the season with Triple-A Durham for precautionary reasons after his arrival to Spring Training was delayed due to visa issues.
Fuld greeted Oviedo with a single, giving him three hits in the game and five hits in the two games he played in the series.
James Loney singled home a run in the sixth before singles by Yunel Escobar and Jose Molina chased Twins starter Ricky Nolasco in the seventh. Caleb Thielbar came on to face Ben Zobrist, whose bunt single loaded the bases. Desmond Jennings and Matt Joyce followed with sacrifice flies to cut the lead to 9-6.
Pinch-hitter Logan Forsythe's RBI single drove in DeJesus in the eighth and closed the deficit to 9-7. But Twins closer Glen Perkins ended any hopes of a Rays comeback by retiring the Rays in order in the ninth to preserve the win and pick up his fifth save of the season.
"In this ballpark, you never feel safe," Twins manager Ron Gardenhire said. "The way they swing the bat and the way the ball bounces around, you just never feel safe. But we basically threw everything at them that we had. The guys came out and scored some runs and we were able to hold on."
Bill Chastain is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.