Wasting a brilliant effort by Ervin Santana, the Angels were felled again by the vagaries of indoor baseball on Tuesday night. The daredevil Rays, doing everything right, rallied from behind to snatch a 4-2 victory on Willy Aybar's two-run single in the eighth inning, thereby staking claim to the title formerly held by the Halos of the American League's best team.
"They've taken it to us, outplayed us in some areas," Angels manager Mike Scioscia said. "Certainly we haven't played well in this park."
Vladimir Guerrero, with his 23rd homer and a double, and Garret Anderson, with an RBI double that extended his hitting streak to 22 games, tried to ignite the Angels. But James Shields (11-7), who lasted eight innings, was the beneficiary of superb defense well before Dan Wheeler came on to claim his seventh save.
With their fifth consecutive win at the Angels' expense at Tropicana Field, the Rays leapfrogged the Angels by a half-game. The Cubs joined the Rays at 77-48 with a win over the Reds, while the Angels fell to 76-48 with their fourth loss in five games on a road trip that ends on Wednesday night.
Handing the ball to Jered Weaver on Wednesday, the Angels have their last chance before the postseason to nail down a happy ending at The Trop when they face right-hander Matt Garza.
Should the Angels and Rays meet again under the big top in the postseason, losing pitcher Scot Shields wouldn't be worried.
"Losing the first five games here isn't going to mess with our minds," said Shields. "We'll have to rise to that challenge if it comes to that."
The Angels were clinging to a 2-1 lead when their allergies to turf surfaced in the eighth. It started with a four-pitch walk by Shields (5-4) to Gabe Gross. Then came a perfect bunt down the third-base line by Jason Bartlett, thrown wildly by catcher Jeff Mathis past second baseman Howie Kendrick covering first.
"Matty makes that play look routine," Shields said. "He's one of the best I've ever seen. I guess my release point threw off his release point."
Another four-pitch walk to Akinori Iwamura loaded the bases. Shields caught B.J. Upton looking at a third strike before being replaced by Darren Oliver. Scioscia hadn't seen Shields throw a strike to a left-handed hitter.
Oliver walked Carlos Pena on a full-count curve that just missed, forcing home the tying run. When Cliff Floyd struck out for the fourth time, Oliver was close to escaping, but Willy Aybar -- older brother of Angels shortstop Erick Aybar -- smacked a two-run single to left for the winning runs.
"A back-door cutter that kind of cut over the plate," Oliver said of the pitch that left Aybar hitting .364 as the fill-in for All-Star third baseman Evan Longoria for an 11-game stretch that seems to have certified the Rays as the real deal.
Minus Longoria, left fielder Carl Crawford and closer Troy Percival, the Rays have gone 9-2. They're 47-17 at The Trop, the best home record in the Majors.
Santana seemingly had solved the Angels' Little Shop of Horrors with a mid-90s fastball backed by a killer slider. He struck out nine across seven innings, walking two and yielding four hits and a run.
"From the dugout," Rays manager Joe Maddon said, "Santana really had no-hit stuff."
Santana was perfect for 3 2/3 innings before walking Pena. His no-hit bid ended when Bartlett whistled a line drive past third and into the left-field corner for a double.
Bartlett advanced to third on Iwamura's infield hit and scored on a roller by Upton when first baseman Mark Teixeira -- unable to get a grip for a peg home -- turned and threw past Santana, a moving target.
Upton was ruled out for making a slight move toward second after running past first, leading to the ejection of Maddon. After walking Pena, Santana struck out Floyd for the third time to preserve his one-run lead.
"I was getting ahead with my fastball and finishing them off with the slider," Santana said, adding that he was throwing as well as he has all season and wasn't frustrated to see his 14th win get away. "I'm not disappointed, because it's baseball. Anything can happen."
The focus was on the finish, but the Rays might have won this one in the first two innings with their gloves, the most underrated part of their total game.
After Chone Figgins' leadoff walk, Erick Aybar was robbed by Bartlett, who ranged into shallow center to flag down his flare and double up Figgins. Teixeira then lashed a drive that sent Gross into the right-field wall for a gem.
After Guerrero got extended for his opposite-field shot leading off the second, consecutive singles by Torii Hunter, Kendrick and Juan Rivera went for naught when Hunter was cut down at home by Upton in center.
"It was one of those games we could have scored a lot of runs early," Teixeira said. "Give them credit -- they're a good team. It's a different team than I'm used to playing here."
Doubles by Guerrero and Anderson pushed the Angels' lead to 2-0 in the fourth, and Anderson's strong, accurate throw nailed Willy Aybar as he tried to stretch a single leading off the seventh.
In the eighth, however, the Angels took a walk on the wild side -- and there was no stopping the runaway Rays.
Lyle Spencer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.