ST. PETERSBURG — Matt Garza knew there was something going on. He was pretty certain he'd allowed just the one baserunner, on a second-inning walk. And though the Rays dugout wasn't overly quiet, it sure seemed to him like nobody had moved from where they were the previous inning.
"The ninth inning I roll out there," Garza said, "I look up, and I go, 'Oh, crap.' "
The chance to throw a no-hitter, the first in Rays history and the first of his career, was staring at him from the Tropicana Field scoreboard, just three outs away. And Garza, despite not feeling good physically or sharp mechanically all night, wisely decided, with a 5-0 lead against the Tigers before 17,009 on Monday night at Tropicana Field, to stick with what had worked.
"I just told myself, well, we can go about this two ways — I can try not to get contact and get in trouble, or go at these guys and if it happens, it happens," he said. "And if it doesn't, I've got a guy that comes in in the ninth inning (closer Rafael Soriano) and shut the door for me."
Soriano didn't need to stir. Garza got Don Kelly on a groundout to second, catcher Gerald Laird looking at strike three then pinch-hitter Ramon Santiago on a fly to rightfield to complete the masterpiece.
Helped by some tremendous defense, Garza faced the minimum 27 batters, striking out six while throwing 120 pitches (and only 40 balls). He retired a team-record 22 straight after the second-inning walk to rookie Brennan Boesch.
When it was over, the fifth no-hitter of the season, teammates raced from the field and the bench to form a circular celebration around him.
"Good for him," centerfielder B.J. Upton said. "That was probably one of the coolest things I've ever been involved with."
The Rays (60-38) had reason to be so happy: They had been on the wrong side of two-hitters already this season, and that's after another last July. "We needed one," Garza said. It's just the third time in major-league history a team has been involved in three in the same season.
Garza, now 11-5 with a 4.06 ERA, had help, of course, from Matt Joyce's sixth-inning grand slam against his former Tigers teammates that broke up the dueling no-hitter by Max Scherzer to a collection of great defensive plays behind him.
Topping the list was a running, leaping grab by rightfielder Ben Zobrist of Danny Worth's liner to end the third. "Nobody will remember that one because it happened so early in the game," catcher Kelly Shoppach said. "But now that there's a no-hitter, it was that one that saved the no-hitter."
Third baseman Evan Longoria made one, snatching Ryan Raburn's hot shot to start a double play that ended the second and erased Boesch. So did first baseman Carlos Peña, snagging a shot by Will Rhymes, and shortstop Jason Bartlett. Upton ran down several long drives, including a fifth-inning blast by Miguel Cabrera on Garza's one mistake of the night. Leftfielder Carl Crawford made a huge play in the eighth, snagging a wicked line drive off Cabrera's bat that he appeared to lose in the lights.
"All night the guys were making plays," Garza said. "I don't think anybody didn't get used tonight."
Joyce would have made a tremendous story on any other night, coming through in his first game against the team that traded him (for Edwin Jackson in December 2008) in dramatic fashion, a two-out, full-count grand slam that struck off the rightfield foul pole.
"No pressure," Joyce joked. "You're facing your old team, and you kinda want to prove something."
Among other things, he was lucky. "I was praying running down the line," Joyce said. "It ended up hitting the foul pole and everyone went nuts."
It was at that moment, Rays manager Joe Maddon said, that he felt Garza had a shot to finish what he started. "I really felt that would be a moment that could really pump the adrenalin a little bit more," Maddon said.
What made Garza's performance even more outstanding was how bad he felt.
"I kept having to remind myself between innings that mechanically I'm still off," he said. "I was falling off the mound on a lot of pitches, my fastball was running away from me, breaking balls in the dirt most of the night.
"I just had to keep reminding myself to stay under control, to keep making pitches, to keep going for Shoppach's glove."
Shoppach said it wasn't as bad as Garza made it sound, though he did rely primarily on his fastball (101 of the 120 pitches), not throwing a curve until the 18th batter. "We didn't need a whole lot of them," Shoppach said.
The Tigers — their lineup depleted with injuries to three starters — noticed but couldn't do anything about it. "He just threw fastball after fastball up top," manager Jim Leyland said, "and we just didn't get to it."
Garza's gem continues an odd season that also includes some of his worst starts, with Maddon saying he hopes Monday night's performance gives Garza the confidence to get on a roll.
Garza wasn't sure exactly what to think. He did a series of interviews on the field, got doused with a beer shower by his teammates when he ducked into the clubhouse (13 cans of Bud Lite and Mich Ultra) then did his formal interview session.
Shoppach claimed Garza was fibbing a bit, that he was well aware of his accomplishment while it was under way. Upton wasn't as sure.
"I don't know; he was locked in today," Upton said. "He didn't say much in the dugout. He was kind of doing his own thing. And when he pitches like that, you leave him alone."
Marc Topkin can be reached at email@example.com.