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Matt Garza returns to form for Tampa Bay Rays

ST. PETERSBURG — Though Matt Garza had thrown out terms such as "September soreness" and "wear and tear of the season" in talking about his recent struggles, he'd insist he was physically fine and close to returning to form.

And on Saturday night, after Garza's best outing in more than a month — seven innings of one-run ball against the Mariners — the right-hander uttered some encouraging words, especially with the playoffs just more than a week away.

"It's good to be back," he said.

Garza (15-9) was sharp against the Mariners thanks to better command of his breaking ball, specifically his slider, keeping hitters off balance and not ready for his fastball.

"It was great just getting back to being me," Garza said.

Both Garza and manager Joe Maddon have said they didn't think Garza's rough September stretch — giving up at least six runs in his previous three starts, while not lasting longer than five innings — wasn't due to health concerns. Maddon said Garza just stayed in his delivery better Saturday, which helped him command his pitches, allowing no walks for the first time since Aug. 6.

"He attacked the zone well," C John Jaso said. "He was moving pitches all around (Saturday) and with accuracy. He was very effective."

MEDICAL MATTERS: 3B Evan Longoria was encouraged by how his strained left quad felt Saturday, saying he hoped he could return by the middle or end of the Orioles series, which is Monday through Wednesday.

Longoria walked around the clubhouse with batting gloves on and a bat in hand, saying it's tough to hold back and rest, but he knows it's the prudent thing. He planned on going in the batting cage Saturday afternoon and tracking pitches to "keep my eyes and my timing as close as I can without doing any physical activity."

HOT CORNER: Dan Johnson entered his first big-league start at third base saying he felt "as comfortable as I can be."

The position isn't completely foreign to Johnson, who filled in there while in Japan last year with the Yokohama Bay Stars, and started 36 games at third for Triple-A Durham this season.

"Japan may be the hardest place to play third because you're involved in every play," Johnson said. "It doesn't matter if the score is 2-1 or 10-0, if the leadoff man gets on, they are bunting."

Maddon said he may play Johnson at third against right-handers and Sean Rodriguez against lefties until Longoria returns.

Johnson wasn't challenged much Saturday except with one out in the sixth when, in trying to charge a chopper by Franklin Gutierrez, he had trouble pulling the ball out of his glove to make a throw. The infield hit allowed Chone Figgins to score from third.

"I can't tell you how it looks — I've never been a Cadillac type of player," Johnson said before the game. "I go get the ball, it doesn't matter how flashy it is, I get the ball and make the play as best I can."

MISCELLANY: 1B Carlos Peña went 0-for-4, dropping his average (.198) below .200 for the first time since July 6 when he was at .199; his average is the lowest among major-league qualifiers. … Maddon said Rocco Baldelli will likely play today against LHP Luke French, though he hadn't decided whether it'll be in rightfield or DH. … Maddon has liked the way CF B.J. Upton has played since getting two days off last week: "He's got a good look about him right now." … RHP Jeremy Hellickson and OF Desmond Jennings will sign autographs today from 12-12:30 p.m. along the rightfield line.

Matt Garza returns to form for Tampa Bay Rays 09/25/10 [Last modified: Sunday, September 26, 2010 1:14am]

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