OAKLAND, Calif. — The most important thing Matt Garza did in Sunday's 3-2 win — better than any of the 100 pitches he threw, or any of the ways he got 23 batters out — was to turn and walk away.
A questionable bases-loaded balk call by umpire James Hoye had just evened the game with the A's in the fifth inning, and there was potential for Garza to unravel, or worse, explode.
He strode toward the plate, arms out and eyes wide, seeking some form of explanation. Manager Joe Maddon — not allowed by the rules to argue a balk call — scurried from the dugout to at least make sure they weren't Garza's last words before an ejection.
Garza talked, he listened, he made it clear with his body language he didn't like what he heard. "I didn't feel I was in the wrong, but (Hoye) did," Garza explained. "It is what it is, and just had to keep going. Couldn't let that bother me."
And, in what was the significant moment of the day for the Rays, he didn't.
Garza got out of that jam, Evan Longoria delivered a huge two-run double the next inning and the dynamic bullpen duo of Joaquin Benoit and Rafael Soriano (with his league-leading 37th save) finished as the Rays went on to an important victory.
They improved to 76-48 (a pace for 99 wins) while remaining one game behind the Yankees in the American League East lead, and 5½ ahead of the Red Sox in the wild-card chase, with 38 to play.
Even as much as Oakland's Dallas Braden knew how unlikely the chances were for a repeat of his May 9 perfect game against the Rays — "Pretty insurmountable," he said — the afternoon began with an uncomfortable feeling as a couple of hard-hit balls by the Rays were caught and a well-placed bunt rolled foul in the first two innings.
"I think we just needed to get that first hit out of the way against Braden," Longoria said.
Sean Rodriguez took care of that when he opened the third with a ground ball that was too hot for diving third baseman Kevin Kouzmanoff to handle, and Kelly Shoppach followed with a double to give them a 1-0 lead.
But Garza ran into his first bit of trouble in the fifth, allowing a one-out single and a walk, and Rodriguez's errant toss on a potential double-play grounder left the bases loaded and the top of the order coming up.
Neither Garza nor Maddon is sure exactly what happened next with an 0-and-2 count on Coco Crisp, but Hoye called a balk on Garza — the AL-high ninth against the Rays — that allowed the tying run to score.
"I was really confused by that," Maddon said.
Though Garza wasn't satisfied — or, in Maddon's 50-cent word, ameliorated — by Hoye's explanation that he moved after coming set, he didn't let it bother him.
"Garz tends to be emotional — not tends, he is," Maddon said. "And I thought he held it together pretty well."
Crisp ripped the next pitch, but first baseman Carlos Peña speared it. And after falling behind 2-and-0 then 3-and-1, Garza came back to strike out Daric Barton on a full-count slider to end the inning.
"That was a big moment," Maddon said. "I was impressed with his ability to go back and get a strikeout against a good hitter."
The Rays rallied the next inning as Longoria ripped a double that scored two.
With strong starting pitching, clutch hitting, strong defense and quality relief work, it was kind of the Rays' version of a perfect game.
"It was formulaic for us," Maddon said. "That's how we need to do business right there."
Marc Topkin can be reached at email@example.com.