ST. PETERSBURG -- When R.A. Dickey's pitches started going to the Tropicana Field backstop, Matt Joyce knew it was a bad sign.
"From the first inning, when you have the catcher missing half the balls that he's throwing, you know his stuff's moving," Joyce said after the Rays' 8-2 series-opening loss to the Blue Jays on Tuesday night. "Guys were missing his stuff by quite a good amount tonight."
Tampa Bay fell to five games under .500 at 67-72, meaning it would need to go 15-8 over its remaining 23 games just to finish the season with a winning record. Since the Rays became the fourth team in Major League history to make it back to .500 after being 18 games below -- which they were on June 10, at 24-42 -- they have lost 11 of their last 17 games.
On Tuesday, Dickey's knuckleball was at its wobbly finest, a double-edged sword that cut the Rays much more often than it turned on its owner.
Yes, at times, the unpredictability of the pitch helped Tampa Bay runners get aboard -- Ben Zobrist started the game by reaching on a strikeout when the ball bounded past catcher Josh Thole, and Dickey hit two batters and walked three. Mostly, though, that was an indication of how unhittable the veteran righty was.
The Rays' first four hitters went a combined 0-for-12 with five strikeouts against Dickey, who went seven innings and allowed two runs on two hits, none after the second inning.
"I had, from a movement standpoint, a really good knuckleball tonight, and it was tough to control it, sometimes," Dickey said. "Balls were taking off late in the zone, which speaks to how many balls that they put in play hard -- not many."
All of Tampa Bay's offense -- both hits and both runs -- came in the second, and the runs came on bloopers into the shallow outfield. Ryan Hanigan flared a single in the right-center gap, while Kevin Kiermaier hit a sacrifice fly to shortstop Jose Reyes, whose momentum took him into center field and allowed Yunel Escobar to score from third.
Rays starter Jeremy Hellickson, on the other hand, had what manager Joe Maddon called his least effective outing of the season, lasting only 3 1/3 innings and giving up five runs on eight hits, two of them home runs. Reyes had the big blow, a go-ahead three-run shot in the fourth inning that knocked Hellickson out of the game.
"It was poorly located pitches at the wrong time," Maddon said. "The whole night I was concerned, I'm not gonna deny that."
While Dickey was mowing down the top of the Tampa Bay order, Hellickson had an especially rough time with Toronto's big bats. Reyes had two hits off Hellickson, including the homer. Melky Cabrera smoked a third-inning double down the right-field line. Jose Bautista had a pair of singles, while Edwin Encarnacion drew a pair of walks.
Hellickson faced 19 batters in his brief outing, and 10 reached base, including the last three who ended his night.
With the game tied at 2 in the top of the fourth, after allowing back-to-back singles to the bottom of the Blue Jays' order, Hellickson ran a fastball right into Reyes' wheelhouse. Reyes drove it into the right-field seats, bringing Maddon strolling out to the mound and signaling toward the bullpen.
"It's extremely frustrating," said Hellickson, who hasn't gone five innings in five of his nine starts. "First two guys get on on infield hits, and then I make a mistake to Reyes. It just happened really fast."
Toronto eventually added three runs against Cesar Ramos in the eighth inning on an RBI triple by Ryan Goins and a pinch-hit, two-run homer by Dioner Navarro, and the Rays had had far too much trouble handling the movement on Dickey's knuckleball to get back into the game.
"We did not really have a whole lot of hard contact," Maddon said. "We were getting bad swings. Guys were coming back saying it was moving a lot, and I think that was from the beginning.
"The wild pitch was our buddy tonight and we just couldn't get enough of them."
David Adler is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.