HOUSTON — Rays manager Joe Maddon believes Yunel Escobar is "definitely an All-Star-caliber player and absolutely a Gold Glove-caliber player."
"I'd like to see a shortstop that is playing better than he is this year," Maddon said Thursday.
You won't hear any arguments from the Astros, who watched Escobar make several dazzling defensive plays in this week's series against the Rays, then beat them with his glove and bat during the Rays' 7-5 11-inning win on the Fourth of July.
"He had a heck of a day," Maddon said.
Escobar matched his season highs with three hits and three RBIs, including a two-run double in the eighth that gave Tampa Bay a 5-2 lead. And after veteran reliever Joel Peralta gave the lead right back in the bottom half of the inning on Brett Wallace's three-run homer, Escobar thwarted the Astros' rally by making a spectacular snag and an offbalance throw to start a double play.
Escobar then ensured the Rays wouldn't head home with a deflating defeat, hitting the go-ahead double in the 11th.
"It's definitely a big win," Escobar said, with bench coach Dave Martinez interpreting, "a win that could uplift the team for the games to come."
Maddon admitted he was scoreboard watching, and as American League East rivals the Red Sox and Yankees continued to win, it was crucial for Tampa Bay (46-40) to take at least three of four from the AL-worst Astros (31-54), who "gave us all we can handle."
"Everybody in the dugout was talking about it," rookie rightfielder Wil Myers said. "Everybody knew we needed to win this game. It was a huge."
Rays right-hander Chris Archer said the game was "kind of like the definition of the Rays. … We pitched pretty well. We scored runs when we needed to, and we played defense all night."
They got a solid start from Archer, who was a better strike-thrower and more efficient in six innings, allowing just two runs and two hits. They made several impressive defensive plays, including a sliding catch and a diving catch by Myers in the first, and Escobar's dash to his right to start the eighth-inning double play.
They had timely hitting, including Desmond Jennings' two doubles and Myers' double in the eighth. After Kelly Johnson was intentionally walked to load the bases with one out in the eighth, Jose Lobaton knocked in the go-ahead run for a 3-2 lead with a fielder's choice, hustling up the line so there was no double play.
"That was absolutely huge," Maddon said.
Escobar followed with the two-out, two-run double off the hill in deep center.
Peralta gave it all back in the bottom half. Maddon said his outing likely would have gone smoothly had he not walked the No. 9 hitter, Jake Elmore, to start the inning. A bloop single and a three-run homer later, the score was tied at 5. Peralta declined to comment after the game.
"Joel is fantastic," Maddon said. "That's just a bad moment for him, but we did bounce back."
Escobar made sure of that, continuing to pick up his offensive game since his early season slump while providing dependable defense (42 straight errorless games). Escobar said he was happy to hear Maddon saying he should be an All-Star. He said his comfort in the Rays' environment is a reason he is thriving.
"I just go out there and try to play the game and have fun," said Escobar, who scored the seventh run on a wild pitch. "This is the first time in my career I really feel like I'm having fun and can be myself."