ST. PETERSBURG -- The learning curve for Tommy Hunter has officially begun. With a loss on Tuesday against the Rays in the Rangers' 10-1 defeat, the 24-year-old right-hander lasted just three-plus innings for the second consecutive start for the first time in his young career.

In addition, besides the 6-0 win over the Mariners on Aug. 5, it is the third time in four starts he could not get past the third inning.

"If I knew [what the problem] was, I wouldn't be here talking about it," said Hunter, who has a 9.39 ERA over his last four outings. "I do know that I need to locate the fastball down and away. That's probably going to be the key to success, and I wasn't able to do that tonight."

It was only the second time this season Hunter has allowed a first-inning run, and in this case, the first inning became the initial nail that sealed his fate. After walking Ben Zobrist with one out, Hunter left pitches up to Crawford, who tripled off the right-field wall, and Longoria, who tripled to deep-left center, before allowing a line drive down the right-field corner to Carlos Pena.

Hunter, who was pitching on three days' rest due to a stomach virus that shortened Friday's appearance against the Red Sox, almost left the game early again due to a physical ailment when he attempted to field a hard chopper by Crawford in the second that resulted in a single. The burly 6-foot-3, 280-pounder was checked by Rangers assistant trainer Kevin Harmon and continued pitching.

While Hunter managed to cruise through the third with two strikeouts sandwiched around a flyout and a single, his night came to a close when he allowed a single to start the fourth on his 83rd pitch to Jason Bartlett.

"He just didn't have it tonight," Rangers manager Ron Washington said. "He made pitches in the zone and they have guys who are going to do something with it. Give credit to their hitters, too."

In giving up four runs on six hits and three walks, Hunter (9-2) suffered his first loss against the Rays in four career starts, and was far different from the last time he faced them in Arlington, when he tossed a complete-game shutout on June 5.

"They're a good hitting team," catcher Bengie Molina said. "Every time we went down with the fastball, it came up. They're not going to miss those pitches."

Those hits continued to come the rest of the night, no matter who was pitching.

After Hunter was relieved by Matt Harrison, the Rays tacked on two more runs in the fourth on a double by Evan Longoria, and then completed the tally with a five-run seventh off Rangers reliever Pedro Strop, highlighted by Crawford's two-run homer, his 14th of the season. The homer by the Rays All-Star left fielder capped a night in front of a crowd of 18,156 at Tropicana Field in which Crawford recorded his 100th career triple, and, at 29 years old, became the youngest player to reach that mark since Stan Musial did so with the Cardinals in 1949 at 28 years and eight months.

In giving up 10 runs while plating just one, the Rangers suffered their most lopsided defeat of the season in losing their fourth straight on the road. While the team maintained an eight-game lead in the American League west over the Angels, who lost to the Red Sox, their 12-20 mark against the AL East does not bode well looking ahead to a potential playoff series.

"It's only two ballgames," Washington said. "You can't start thinking about the playoffs now. It's still August. We'll come back tomorrow, battle hard and try to get back on track."

The Rangers must do a better job at solving Wednesday's starter, James Shields, than they did Matt Garza, who tossed seven scoreless innings while striking out 10 and allowing five hits. Three of those strikeouts came in the first inning, when he whiffed Elvis Andrus, Julio Borbon and Josh Hamilton to start the game.

"He made some tough pitches and made them when it counted," said Andrus, who singled off Garza in the third inning and finished 1-for-4.

Like Monday, when the Rangers left runners on base in key situations, they could not muster a key hit when it mattered most. In the third, with two men on and one out, Borbon flied out and Hamilton struck out, and in the sixth, after a one-out double by Vladimir Guerrero and a walk by David Murphy, Jorge Cantu struck out and Molina flied out.

By the time the Rangers scored their run on an RBI single by Murphy off Rays reliever Randy Choate, Garza was in the dugout enjoying his 12th victory of the season.

For the Rangers, a postive sign came well after many of the players had showered and left the clubhouse when the seasoned veteran Molina pulled Hunter aside and began instructing him on how to improve his fastball location.

"I know he's getting frustrated, but it's a part of the game and he has to learn how to deal with it," Molina said. "We have a good team and we're going to do everything we can to help him."