Rays hold on for win despite crazy ninth
Aybar comes through with game-winning double in eighth inning
ARLINGTON -- Saturday night reaffirmed an old baseball truth: the ninth inning has a life of its own.
And this time the Rays owned the ninth to take a 5-4 win over the Rangers in front of a crowd of 28,788 at Rangers Ballpark in Arlington.
Saturday night's win kept the Rays a half a game behind the American League East-leading Red Sox and gave the Rays their 11th series win in the last 14 series they have played.
"There's no doubt [the ninth inning has a life of its own]," Rays reliever Dan Wheeler said. "I try to treat the ninth inning as the eighth inning, seventh inning, whatever, but there's something about the ninth. You have to go out there and make a pitch. I keep saying that. You've got to knock all that other stuff out of your head, the extra adrenaline they have [and the fact it's] their last at-bat."
Wheeler's job Saturday night was to protect a 5-3 Rays lead in the bottom of the ninth, and to say things got interesting would be an understatement along the lines of saying the Rays have not done well at Fenway Park this season.
Wheeler, who also retired Gerald Laird to end the Rangers' eighth, struck out Jarrod Saltalamacchia to start the ninth before Ramon Vazquez singled to center field and Ian Kinsler doubled to right-center field. Chris Shelton then walked to load the bases for Josh Hamilton, the American League's leader in home runs and RBIs.
Hamilton hit a shot that Jason Bartlett backhanded at short and threw to Akinori Iwamura covering at second for the forceout. The Rays second baseman wisely didn't try to make a hurried throw to first for the inning-ending double play. A run scored on the play to cut the Rays lead to 5-4 and bring Milton Bradley to the plate, the AL's leading hitter.
Bradley already had a home run and a double in the game when he hit a shot back through the middle that deflected off Wheeler's glove to Iwamura, who threw to first base for the game's final out.
"In that situation you just have to slow things down and make some pitches," Wheeler said. "I was able to get some ground balls with some good hitters up there. And Bartlett made a great play, and I assisted Aki on the last one. That one probably would have been up the middle. I reached for it and I just nicked it enough to go to Aki."
Rays manager Joe Maddon lauded Wheeler's gritty performance.
"He didn't cave in, I mean Danny's a tough guy," Maddon said. "He did not cave in and made pitches when he had to and got through some very difficult moments against the middle of their lineup."
While the ninth inning is a game unto itself, Wheeler was cognizant of the other eight innings.
"One of the big things for me is to watch these guys battle for eight innings and put ourselves in a position to win," Wheeler said. "And the last thing I want to do as a reliever is to go out there and give it up. So for me, I thrive off that, to know our guys have been battling as a team to win this game. So you don't want to give it up -- ever. It's a good feeling to close the door."
Andy Sonnanstine started for the Rays and took care of five of the other eight innings, holding the Rangers to two runs before giving way to J.P. Howell, who pitched two scoreless innings and got credit for the win after Willy Aybar doubled home two runs in the eighth to put the Rays up, 4-2.
Trever Miller took over for Howell in the eighth and gave up Bradley's home run, but did not allow any further damage before giving way to Wheeler with two outs in the inning.
"We made it entertaining," Miller said. "You've got to remember, these guys might be the hottest lineup in baseball right now, especially the three, four, five guys. Just look at their numbers for June, they're mind-boggling. So we were able to get through that."
Bartlett's heroics in the ninth inning were not limited to his glove. With one out in the top half of the inning, Bartlett threaded a single through the middle against Jamey Wright. He then proceeded to steal second and third before Wright uncorked a wild pitch with two outs, which allowed Bartlett to score and put the Rays up 5-3, giving the Rays the cushion they needed to survive the bottom half of the inning.
Saturday night's victory continued the Rays' trend of successfully bouncing back from adversity. Earlier in the season they recovered nicely from getting swept by the Red Sox at Fenway by taking two out of three from the Blue Jays in Toronto. This week began with yet another Boston massacre that saw the Rays drop three straight at Fenway, yet once again they recovered by claiming their next series.
"To come in here against this team, which had a winning record at home, and they've been very hot offensively," Maddon said. "And our pitchers have just done a tremendous job to this point. Because these guys can hit and they really hit well here."
Bill Chastain is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.