ST. PETERSBURG — The Rays showed Lou Piniella what he'd been missing.
In their first game against their former manager, the Rays combined power and quality relief work — two things Piniella longed for during his 2003-05 reign — then capped it with dazzling defense to beat his best-in-baseball Cubs 3-2 Tuesday.
The solo homers from former Cub Cliff Floyd and rookie Evan Longoria, and the 13 outs from their bullpen — the last three a Troy Percival adventure — after an erratic yet effective start by Scott Kazmir were all good.
But it was the thrilling last play that was the best, the Cubs with the tying run breaking home as Longoria fielded a Reed Johnson bunt barehanded and made an off-balance throw that first baseman Willy Aybar scooped for the final out.
"Probably," Percival said, "the best bunt play I've ever seen."
Rays coaches had tried to alert Longoria to the possibility but, in a new problem at Tropicana Field, he couldn't hear them telling him to move in over the raucous split-loyalties crowd of 31,607.
Instead, they could only watch.
"It's one of those things you see in movies: everything's in slow motion," Rays manager Joe Maddon said. "You're yelling, 'N-o-o-o-o-o-o,' that kind of stuff."
Longoria said he was about three steps behind the base when he started moving in, and all he could do was react. "I was pressing the panic button," he said. "That's the game on the line right there. He lays down a good bunt, I was just trying to get it off the turf clean and get it over there."
As much as Longoria deserves credit for his play, so did Aybar, a converted third baseman who said he was "just trying to stay low" in handling a treacherous in-between hop.
"To finish a game like that, what Aybar did was truly amazing," Maddon said. "That's like the worst hop you're going to get in that situation."
That's the way things have been bouncing for the Rays, who improved to 41-29, staying two games behind Boston in the AL East, with wins in 23 of their past 27 home games and a 27-11 overall home record.
Kazmir wasn't particularly sharp, throwing 110 pitches and walking four in 42/3 innings. He was still pretty good, facing 16 batters before allowing his first hit and giving up three hits on the night, none solid, though enough for a Cubs run in a messy fifth.
Maddon had seen enough and went to the bullpen, with Grant Balfour getting a huge out, striking out Aramis Ramirez with the bases loaded. J.P. Howell and Dan Wheeler followed, then Percival made it way too exciting trying to protect a 3-1 lead in the ninth.
He gave up a rocket to left that Justin Ruggiano snagged just before he hit the wall, then a single and a double to put the tying runs in scoring position, then sailed a pitch, scored a passed ball, that made it 3-2 with the tying run on third. He bounced another that caromed hard off the backstop, with Kosuke Fukudome holding at third. After a strikeout and a walk, Johnson dropped his bunt, Longoria did his thing, and Piniella, who lost 285 (of 485 games) with the Rays, lost one to them in an unhappy homecoming.
"An exciting game," he said. "A good game."
Marc Topkin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.