08/19/08 11:35 PM ET
Aybar's single pushes Rays past Angels
Tampa Bay has AL's best record after infielder's clutch hit
By Brittany Ghiroli / MLB.com
Heck, on Tuesday night Tampa Bay didn't even need manager Joe Maddon.
The Rays staged a three-run eighth inning -- following their skipper's ejection in the sixth -- with utility man Willy Aybar in the starring role.
Filling in at third-base in Longoria's absence, Aybar delivered a clutch two-out, two-run single to power the Rays past the Angels, 4-2, and seize the American League's best record title from the Los Angeles squad.
In 11 games since Longoria was placed on the disabled list, Aybar has been a force: batting .364 with three home runs and nine RBIs.
"Willy's a great player," said starter James Shields, who picked up win No. 11. "I mean he's good to have every night he goes out. He's a gamer. He knows how to play the game and he's doing a great, great job of that."
Although Aybar's hit came off Darren Oliver, the inning started when Gabe Gross drew a walk from Angels reliever Scot Shields. Jason Bartlett followed with a textbook bunt that drew an errant throw from catcher Jeff Mathis to advance both runners, then Akinori Iwamura walked to load the bases. After Shields fanned B.J. Upton, Oliver issued a free pass to Carlos Pena, tying the game. One out later, Aybar delivered a piece of clutch hitting that has become increasingly familiar for the first-place Rays.
"It's in us to battle every time," Cliff Floyd said. "And Willy decided he was going to pick us up."
Added Upton: "We don't quit until the game's over. Lot of character in this team."
The Rays outfielder gave Maddon a reason to expose his rather colorful side.
After an infield single in the sixth inning that scored Bartlett, first base umpire Jerry Meals ruled Upton made a move to advance to second and called him out on Howie Kendrick's tag.
Although Upton has been under fire recently for lack of hustle and mental lapses on the base paths, he sprinted down the first-base line and was visibly upset about the ruling, telling reporters afterward that he felt he made no move whatsoever to advance.
Maddon agreed and came out to argue the call. Several minutes later, following a tirade directed at Meals and crew chief Gary Darling, Maddon was ejected for the third time this season.
"It was a fabricated call," Maddon said. "It's in a crucial part of the game in a pennant hunt. To make something up is wrong, and then to be validated by the crew chief really got me upset."
The usually pleasant Maddon was still noticeably upset following the game and said there was "no room" for that kind of call.
Meals was not made available for comment, but Darling spoke on behalf of all four umpires and stood by the decision that Upton tried to advance.
"Little jab step and a shoulder," Darling said. "I've called guys out for less."
Fortunately for the Rays, the incident didn't tarnish their 35th come-from-behind victory this season. With the win, Tampa Bay is now 77-48, tied with the Chicago Cubs for the best record in the Majors.
But Tuesday night, the Rays just wanted to savor the immediate effects: a series win over the Angels.
"It's satisfying," Shields said. After allowing a pair of early runs, the right-hander locked in to go eight strong innings on the hill and was rewarded with stoic defense and just enough offense to overtake the Halos.
Gross robbed Mark Teixeira of an extra-base hit in the first inning, hitting the wall hard. One inning later, Upton charged a single and threw out Torii Hunter at the plate, garnering a standing ovation from the crowd of 15,902.
"The level of our defense has been pretty much like this all season," Maddon said.
And Bartlett's line-drive catch turned double play for the game's first two outs? Just another day at the office for the Rays.
"We believe when we get ready to go out into the dugout and go onto the field it's going to happen," Floyd said. "Especially here.
"That's what we've been doing all year. We have no quit. It may sound crazy because sometimes you get beat, but we never quit until it's over."
And if they keep this up, that may not be until October.
Brittany Ghiroli is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.