08/18/08 1:10 AM ET
Big blasts back Kazmir's outing in finale
Pena, Upton connect with homers; lefty earns ninth victory
By Bill Chastain / MLB.com
Tampa Bay's 10-game road trip to Seattle, Oakland and Texas ended with a 7-4 win over the Rangers in front of a crowd of 18,363 at Rangers Ballpark. Not only did the win give the Rays a series win, it also gave them a 7-3 mark over the course of a difficult spot on their schedule.
With the win, the Rays moved to 75-48 on the season and improved their road record to 30-31. The win, combined with a 15-4 Red Sox loss to the Blue Jays, increased the Rays' lead in the American League East to 4 1/2 games -- which means they gained 1 1/2 games while away from Tropicana Field.
"To go on a 10-game road trip and to come back with a larger lead than when we left, I think that's obviously very good," Rays manager Joe Maddon said. "We've won some difficult games, including tonight's. [There was] a lot of unusual stuff that we did during the course of the last 10 days. ... The thing that I like is everybody is involved."
During the course of the trip, the Rays had extra-inning wins in Seattle and Oakland; they suffered key injuries to Carl Crawford, Evan Longoria and Troy Percival; they overcame B.J. Upton getting benched; and, finally, they headed for the team charter to fly home with the threat of a hurricane looming.
"I'm ecstatic about the whole trip, quite frankly," Maddon said. "You look at what's been going on without Carl, without Longo, Percy going down, all the things we're fighting against, then to come into this ballpark and play as well as we did.
"I know [the Rangers have been] struggling a bit, but if you look at their home numbers, they're very impressive as opposed to their road numbers. So to be able to do that speaks a lot for our players and their will and their want to win. And that's what we've been all about. And I'm really proud of our guys in that respect."
The Rays took a 7-2 lead into the ninth inning, and had to do a double-clutch to make sure they did not finish the road trip with a major mood killer.
Ultimately, the game came down to Maddon's decision on whether to pitch to Josh Hamilton with the bases loaded and two outs. Rather than risk Hamilton hitting a grand slam that would have tied the game, Maddon elected to have Grant Balfour issue an intentional pass, which scored the Rangers' fourth run and brought the winning run to the plate in the form of Marlon Byrd. Fortunately for the Rays, Dan Wheeler came in to pitch to Byrd and struck him out swinging to end the game.
"When we don't have drama, it's all good," Maddon said. "... With [the Rangers] in this ballpark, you know them, you know their offense. A 7-2 lead to me is like a three-run lead at the best. That's how I think about it mentally. I managed in the Texas League before, and I know how the games can change very quickly. So I had that on my mind."
Upton's RBI double in the third gave the Rays a 1-0 lead. Carlos Pena finished off the inning with his 25th home run of the season, a three-run shot that gave the Rays a 4-0 lead.
Jason Bartlett singled home the Rays' fifth run before Upton connected for a two-run homer to give the Rays a 7-1 lead.
"I saw the ball well tonight, got some good pitches to hit [and] took advantage of it," said Upton, who went 3-for-5 with three RBIs. "... Obviously [Sunday] was just a little more magnified because of the situation the other night. I didn't change anything. I went up there with the same approach I've had all season, and I just happened to swing the bat well tonight."
Scott Kazmir started for the Rays, and the southpaw picked up his ninth win of the season after holding the Rangers to two runs on four hits while walking four and striking out seven. The win also was his first since July 21 -- covering a span of four starts -- and his last win was also the last time he went at least six innings.
"That felt a whole lot better," Kazmir said. "To be able to go back out there for that sixth inning was huge for me. As you could tell, I just felt relaxed out there in the sixth. I wasn't thinking about pitch count. Everything was working. My slider was working. Got a couple of called strikes and swinging strikes on it. So there's definitely a lot I can take out of this start."
And there's a lot Kazmir's teammates can take out of their road trip.
Bill Chastain is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.