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08/28/08 12:16 AM ET

Garza leads Rays to win over Jays

Tampa Bay earns 80th victory of the year in pitchers' duel

ST. PETERSBURG -- It had everything: A dazzling mound performance backed by defensive wizardry and one very important power stroke.

Wednesday night's game played out like a classic postseason battle by a team that is getting closer and closer to going to baseball's big dance.

And when the dust finally settled with a leaping back-to-the-wall grab from Justin Ruggiano, the Rays had parlayed Matt Garza's dominant 7 2/3 innings into a series-evening 1-0 win over the Blue Jays in front of a crowd of 12,678.

"I stopped breathing for those three seconds," Carlos Pena said, referring to the time Ruggiano slammed into the left-field wall, robbing Toronto's Rod Barajas of a potential extra-base hit.

Welcome to the 2008 Rays season, where adversity turns into putty in the American League East leaders' capable hands.

Remember Garza's much-publicized spat on the hill with catcher Dioner Navarro on June 8?

Rays manager Joe Maddon does. Quite fondly in fact. The skipper deems that incident a cornerstone moment in the 24-year-old's development.

"The difference in him is night and day," Maddon said. "Every day he's a different guy. He's a different guy than we saw in the beginning of the year. He's different; he's different in all the best ways. He's never been a bad person; he's just more under control. And like I said, he's turning into a professional."

Since the incident with Navarro, Garza has gone 7-4 with a 3.12 ERA, and all three of the Rays' last shutout wins have come in games he has started.

"I've grown up a lot this year," Garza said. "Mentally and physically."

Wednesday night's performance -- in which he scattered six hits en route to his seventh shutout appearance this year -- was just the latest example.

Garza tossed 115 pitches in the contest and exited after a pair of walks with two outs in the eighth inning. But reliever Grant Balfour struck out Adam Lind to end the frame and keep Garza's line intact.

"He's turning into a young professional right now," Maddon said, of Garza's newfound poise. "He's getting it, he understands."

But Garza wasn't the only player putting learned lessons on display.

Ruggiano's game-ending web gem came exactly a week after he cautiously let a ball fall into left field for a single, a critical play that later led to a 5-4 loss to the Angels.

Wednesday night, he found redemption, shifting over to left field in the top of the ninth inning for the first time since that fateful Angels game produced a postgame chat about aggressiveness with Maddon.

"I wasn't going to do it again, I knew that," Ruggiano said. "Whatever it took to make that last play, I was going to do."

Fortunately, all it took to put the Rays on top in the first place was one sweet stroke of Pena's bat. The Rays first baseman broke the scoreless tie in the bottom of the fourth inning, ambushing David Purcey's first pitch of the frame over the right-field fence. The rookie Purcey notched a career-high 11 strikeouts, but was outdueled by Garza, who led the Rays to their franchise-best 80th victory, snapping a two-game home losing streak.

"When we come out on top of those close games, it says a lot about our character as a team," Pena said. "It's a great sign when you see teams win those close games. And for us, it's just encouraging to see that we can battle all the way to the end and come out on top."

The Rays are now 24-15 in one-run games and maintain a 3 1/2-game cushion over the second-place Red Sox. They will head into Thursday's finale looking to avoid their first series loss since the All-Star break, having gone 10-0-1 over that stretch.

And, according to Maddon, they show no signs of slowing down.

"I think our guys are finally getting it," Maddon said. "They are finally understanding it. Believe me, there's a certain kind of September energy that just comes your way when you are in the hunt. And regardless of how tired you may be, you just find somehow to get to that next level on that specific night."

And even if Wednesday night's game wasn't in September, the late-August contest sure felt like the same style of play the Rays could win with in 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.