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06/30/08 11:55 PM ET

Rays edge Sox in thriller, remain in first

Howell nails it down after ailing Percival gives up pair in ninth

ST. PETERSBURG -- Tropicana Field bit the home team Monday night, but the bite wasn't bad enough to allow a point break for the visiting team.

Despite carrying a six-game winning streak against the Rays into Monday night's game, the defending World Series champion Red Sox could not break serve against the Rays, so once again the home team prevailed with a 5-4 win in front of a crowd of 34,145 at Tropicana Field.

The home team has now won 11 consecutive games in this budding rivalry.

"I just know they have a great home-court advantage up there and we're building one here, that's what I'm seeing," Rays manager Joe Maddon said.

Monday's win moved the Rays' Major League-best record to 50-32 on the season while increasing their lead in the American League East to 1 1/2 games over the second-place Red Sox. But victory did not come without some palpitations by the home team.

Tropicana Field assumed an ominous persona in the ninth when Troy Percival entered the game to his customary tunes from Godsmack to try to protect a 5-2 Rays lead. Thunder echoed outside the dome as the Rays closer struck out Manny Ramirez for the first out.

The ninth inning then assumed a life of its own. Mike Lowell doubled and Kevin Youkilis followed with a single before Brandon Moss lofted a fly ball to right field. Gabe Gross camped underneath the ball for what appeared to be the second out of the inning. Only the catwalk swallowed the ball and spit it back to a landing spot in shallow right field while the Rays right fielder helplessly observed.

"I was just kind of watching it, it was almost in slow motion," Gross said. "As it was getting close, I realized it was high enough to hit it and I was hoping it would clear. When I didn't see it come out of the other side, I realized we had problems."

Catwalk rules at Tropicana Field state that a ball hitting the "B" ring in fair territory and landing in fair territory is a fair ball. Lowell scored on the play, Youkilis advanced to third and Moss stood on second the recipient of a bewitching RBI double.

"It's just one of those things," Gross said. "Percy didn't make a bad pitch. I didn't screw anything up. Neither did anybody else and all of a sudden, they've got a double and a run scored."

Added Maddon: "It was the first time it bit us back. It was the first time 'the Pit' was unfriendly."

"I just know they have a great home-court advantage up there and we're building one here, that's what I'm seeing."
-- Joe Maddon

Jason Varitek cut the Rays' lead to one run with a sacrifice fly that scored Youkilis and advanced Moss to third, leaving the potential tying run 90 feet away. Meanwhile, Maddon visited Percival on the mound and decided -- despite Percival's protest -- that Percival's left hamstring was acting up again and took him out.

J.P. Howell entered the game.

"I had a lot of faith in J.P. there," said Maddon, who has repeatedly called the spunky left-hander the team's most valuable player from the first half.

Howell again delivered, getting Julio Lugo to line out to shortstop to end the game, earning Howell his second save of the season while preserving Rays starter James Shields' sixth win.

"The way Shields pitched really set the tone for me," Howell said. "I was actually a little nervous before the first pitch, but I saw him come in and come after guys. It made me know what I had to do."

Shields allowed two runs on five hits in 6 1/3 innings to improve to 2-0 with a 1.17 ERA in two starts against the Red Sox at Tropicana Field this season. The bulldog right-hander got the Rays off to a rollicking start in the first when he retired the Red Sox in order on seven pitches.

B.J. Upton ignited the Trop further when he led off the Rays' half of the first with a home run on the first pitch thrown by Red Sox starter Justin Masterson. Upton had not hit a home run since June 8 at Texas, but there was little suspense about this one as it quickly disappeared over the 404-foot sign in center field with the urgency of a well-struck 2-iron.

Upton "was about as amped up as I've seen him," Maddon said. "It was a great moment for us."

Lowell's RBI single in the fourth tied the game at 1 before Gross answered in the bottom of the inning with a two-run homer, his sixth of the season, for a 3-1 Rays lead. Carlos Pena doubled home Willy Aybar in the fifth to push the lead to 4-1.

J.D. Drew's two-out solo home run in the sixth got the Red Sox back to within two runs, but Jonny Gomes hit into a fielder's choice in the seventh to drive in a run and push the Rays' lead to 5-2.

An ugly fracas took place the last time these two teams met in Boston on June 5. Nothing resembling trouble took place Monday night, just quality baseball.

"The fans saw good pitching," Lowell said. "They saw some home runs. I thought it was a well-played game, despite, I think, all the hype that everyone had for it.

"If both teams keep playing very good baseball, both teams are going to make the playoffs. I think that's so much more important than benches clearing a few weeks ago."

Bill Chastain is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.