09/23/08 12:27 AM ET
Rays inch toward AL East crown in win
Price takes no-hitter into fifth in first start; magic number is four
By Bill Chastain / MLB.com
The victory, combined with the Red Sox's loss to the Indians, reduced Tampa Bay's magic number to four with seven games to play, which also takes into consideration the fact the Rays own the tiebreaker after winning their season series vs. Boston.
So any combination of Tampa Bay wins and Boston losses totaling four will give the Rays their first American League East title. In addition, Tampa Bay increased its lead over the second-place Red Sox to 2 1/2 games
Shortly after the Rays had won the game, reporters watched the end of the Red Sox-Indians contest on a TV outside the Tampa Bay clubhouse. When Indians right-hander Jensen Lewis struck out Jed Lowrie of the Red Sox to end the game and preserve a 4-3 win, a roar followed from behind the closed doors of the Rays' clubhouse.
Normally it's not cool for a Major League team to admit to watching the scoreboard. That is unless it's the last week of the season and all the rules about maintaining a poker face go out the window.
"Yeah, it's pretty fun," veteran Cliff Floyd said. "We're all in here hooting and hollering like we just won a playoff spot again. I mean, it's fun. It's fun to stay here with all your boys and watch another game. And visa versa, they're watching us, too. And that's the best part about it, we're not just in the playoffs, we're going for the division and the best record."
Carlos Pena smiled when asked about the load roar.
"Oh yeah, we were pumped," Pena said. "We understand where we stand. But that's the cool thing about this, we understand we have to come back tomorrow and just focus on the game we're playing. We'll watch it, but let's take care of our business and that won't even matter."
The Rays took care of business on Monday night despite getting just three hits. Five other times this season Tampa Bay couldn't get more than three hits in a game and it lost four of those games.
Brian Bass started for the Orioles, and using his sinker effectively, he held the Rays hitless through 4 2/3 innings before walking the bases loaded in the fifth.
"It's not like he was just missing off the plate," Orioles manager Dave Trembley said. "He was done. He was out of gas. When [pitching coach Rick] Kranitz went to the mound, Kranitz came back and said, 'He's done. He's lost it.'"
Randor Bierd entered the game to pitch to Akinori Iwamura, and the Rays' second baseman drove a single to the gap in right-center field to score two and put Tampa Bay up, 2-0.
David Price started for the Rays and held the Orioles hitless through four innings. But Baltimore got busy in the fifth, when Luke Scott led off with a shot to third that Evan Longoria could not handle. Ramon Hernandez followed with the Orioles' first hit of the game, a line-drive single to left, before Lou Montanez singled to load the bases. Juan Castro drew a bases loaded walk to force in Baltimore's first run and Brian Roberts added a sacrifice fly to tie the score at 2.
Price finished with a no-decision after giving way to Grant Balfour with runners on first and second and one out in the sixth.
"I left us in a position to win the game," Price said. "That's what you want to do. I feel like I did a good job of that."
Balfour cleaned up the mess he inherited by getting Hernandez to pop out to center field with the runners going. B.J. Upton made the catch then threw to second to double off Aubrey Huff at second.
"I knew [Hernandez] was more of a pull hitter, that sort of thing," Balfour said. "I was trying to make some good pitches, threw him down and away and I was lucky enough to get him to pop one up there. And the guys were running, so it turned out to be a nice little double play there and we got out of that inning pretty quick."
Trembley did not think much of his team's baserunning on the play.
"It's three balls and two strikes and you're running and it's a fly ball. Don't you stop?" Trembley asked. "It's not kamikaze baseball, you don't just run 'til you're out. ... To be honest with you, that's embarrassing to me and the club and the people watching the game."
After escaping the jam, the Rays got two runs in the seventh on Jason Bartlett's RBI double and Pena's bases-loaded walk, which drove in his 100th run of the season and gave Tampa Bay a 4-2 lead.
Balfour returned to pitch the seventh and he retired the side in order, striking out two. J.P. Howell followed Balfour with 1 1/3 scoreless innings before Dan Wheeler took over in the ninth and got the final two outs of the game to preserve the win and earn his 12th save of the season.
"[Balfour is] kind of inventing a role, the closer in the middle of the game," Rays manager Joe Maddon said. "Whereas the game could get out of hand at that point and you could get in a deficit, and I don't know how many times he's kept that from happening. J.P. [Howell] has done the same thing. They've both done a wonderful job of permitting us to maintain a lead or a slight deficit to come back. Once again, invaluable, that's an understatement.
"The role they've provided for us is unique and the fact that they can pitch multiple innings or get four outs. I really like the concept of getting four outs. Most relief pitchers don't like to get the last out of an inning and go back out again. These guys are good with that and that's really valuable for piecing a game together."
And thanks to Balfour there might be another coming fashion for Rays players. Already the team has embraced Mohawk haircuts, now Balfour is sporting a Fu Manchu mustache. Given his success, who knows if his teammates will follow suit.
"If [Fu Manchu's are in], I'm out, I'd be really sparse," Maddon said. "But I'm all for it. If they like to do that I'm good. Anything that makes them look meaner, I'm good with that."
Bill Chastain is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.