ST. PETERSBURG — This is how good things are going for the Rays. They were held to one hit and down to their last four outs Saturday night, and today they have a chance to sweep the Red Sox out of town and move into second place in the AL East.
That's because Akinori Iwamura, their struggling leadoff man, hit an unlikely two-run homer with two outs in the eighth, and Troy Percival finished what Edwin Jackson started to cap another night of strong pitching and defense, giving them a 2-1 win over the sagging Sox before a Tropicana Field sellout crowd of 36,048.
"Our guys are into it," manager Joe Maddon said. "They're into it. They're starting to believe a little bit. When you beat the world champs, obviously that does something for your confidence."
And why not?
The Rays are off to their best start at 13-11, have won five straight for the first time since August 2005 (and came from behind in each) and are two games over .500 this "late" into a season for the third time in their 11 seasons (40-38 on July 7, 2004, and 22-20 on May 21, 1999).
And this is how different things are for the Rays.
They don't see the chance to sweep the Sox (15-11, losers of four straight) as that big a deal.
"I don't think we're the Rays of old where you come in and go, 'Oh, my God, we just beat the Red Sox,' " said reliever Trever Miller, a member of the major-league-best bullpen. "We think we're going to beat them. That's where this team has gone. We've advanced to that level. … I don't think you make a whole ordeal about it. We just come out (today) and try to finish them off."
That's what made the difference Friday, when the Rays won in 11 innings, and again Saturday.
Jackson pitched very well, allowing the only run when Coco Crisp went from first to third on a wild pitch, then scored on an infield single after a diving stop by third baseman Evan Longoria.
Sox rookie Clay Buchholz pitched better, keeping the Rays off-balance with a mix of change-
ups and curveballs and allowing one hit into the eighth. But Navarro, hitting for Shawn Riggans, singled to right. After an out, Iwamura, who had one extra-base hit and an average dipping toward .200, got the curve he was looking for on a 1-and-1 pitch and lofted it over the rightfield fence.
Iwamura said he knew it was gone as soon as he hit it, knew what it meant and felt good about it. He took a long look into the Rays dugout on his way to first.
"I looked at everybody and I felt the power from everybody and that's why probably the ball carried that way," Iwamura said through an interpreter. "I came back to the dugout and everybody was happy. And I made myself happy, too."
Percival made them all happy with another 1-2-3 ninth. And they'll have their top pitcher, James Shields, on the mound today to try to do it again.
"It feels good to win two close games like that against Boston," Carl Crawford said. "Hopefully it gives us the confidence to keep going on and winning more games."
Marc Topkin can be reached at email@example.com.