ST. PETERSBURG — Matt Garza said that after his last start — what he labeled the low point in his professional career — he had a candid conversation with pitching coach Jim Hickey.
They talked about how Garza had strayed from his aggressive mentality in giving up seven runs over 11/3 innings against the Marlins. They felt the outing was an anomaly, and Garza vowed he'd "go back to basics."
Garza certainly looked more like a potential ace Thursday against the Padres, giving up three runs over eight innings in a confidence-building 5-3 win in front of 21,877 at Tropicana Field. And the Rays (43-29) looked more like they did earlier in the season, using a combination of pitching, defense and a 1-2-3 ninth by closer Rafael Soriano to snap a season-long three-game losing streak. The Rays drew to two games behind the idle Yankees in the American League East.
Several Rays contributed, from outfielder B.J. Upton's leadoff homer to DH Willy Aybar's two-run single to catcher Kelly Shoppach's near cycle and go-ahead home run. But Garza delivering his best performance in a month was "huge," according to manager Joe Maddon.
"It's all about confidence, the world revolves around confidence," Maddon said. "And that will truly make (Garza) better the next time out."
Upton said he could tell Garza was ready by his demeanor in the clubhouse before the game. Maddon said he knew it from Garza's first-pitch fastball, a strike low in the zone, which he said is usually a good sign of things to come.
"I came … with the mentality that I'm just going to attack," Garza said. "I got away from that the last couple starts. I shied away from my fastball, and that's who I am. I'm a fastball guy, so I can't shy away from my best pitch."
Garza gave up all three runs in the second inning, hanging a slider to Oscar Salazar, who hit a two-run homer. After the homer, Garza retired 14 of the next 15 hitters, with Shoppach saying the pitcher began imposing his fastball more.
"His secondary pitches are so good, he wants to throw them," Shoppach said. "But his fastball, that's his bread and butter. He's got to remember that, and he did that today."
Shoppach had his best game as a Ray, going 3-for-4, including his first homer for Tampa Bay, a solo shot in the sixth that put the Rays up by a run. A triple short of the cycle, Shoppach was his typically self-deprecating self. "Somebody would have to get hurt for me to get a triple, and I just don't want that to happen," he joked.
He also credited the white batting gloves given to him by Hank Blalock. "I just had some good swings today," he said.
The Rays, for the first time in a while, felt like they got some good fortune, too. After a controversial balk call on Garza in the seventh put the tying run (Will Venable) on second with no outs, Maddon was ejected for arguing. But the Rays got out of the jam, catching Venable in a rundown between second and third on Jerry Hairston's sharp grounder to shortstop Jason Bartlett. The Rays pulled off a double play, with third baseman Evan Longoria tagging Venable, then throwing out Hairston at second.
"A fortunate double play for us," Longoria said. "It's just been one of those periods for us that the ball hasn't been bouncing our way. That was a big spot in the game for us, up by one run late in the game. We needed a play like that and, thankfully, it went our way."