BALTIMORE — The Rays were pleased with how far they got in April. But they began May somewhere they've never been, alone atop the American League East.
They got there by beating Baltimore 4-2, with more good pitching and another injury, then moving percentage points ahead of Boston, as well as four games over .500, at 16-12, for just the third time in franchise history. It's by far the latest into a season they've been on top, and they open an unexpected battle for first place tonight at Fenway Park.
Thursday, they got six solid innings from Matt Garza, who allowed just a two-run homer to Adam Jones in stating his case to stay in the rotation, though that decision might not be as complicated with reliever Gary Glover possibly headed to the disabled list.
They received another sterling effort from their best-in-the-majors bullpen. Dan Wheeler worked two more perfect innings, and Troy Percival went 1-2-3 for his 330th career save, tying John Wette-
land for 10th on the all-time list.
And they lost centerfielder B.J. Upton with an apparent looked-worse-than-it-was left shoulder strain, though he says he could return as soon as Saturday.
"It's early, and everybody knows it's early," leftfielder Carl Crawford said. "We just want to try to keep playing well and playing hard and see what happens."
The Rays led 2-0 — an RBI groundout from Carlos Pena and a homer from Jonny Gomes — but Garza gave it up by hanging a slider to Jones in the fourth. The Rays rallied in the seventh as Crawford singled in two more.
"Success is contagious," Gomes said. "With the starting pitchers and the bullpen doing well, we want to go out there and get them runs. … Everyone's got everyone's back."
After Andy Sonnanstine's stellar effort Wednesday, the focus seemed to shift to Garza as the pitcher most likely to be dropped from the rotation when Scott Kazmir returns Sunday.
But Garza, who hadn't worked more than five innings in three starts and spent two weeks on the disabled list, responded well, using his fastball primarily to allow three hits and two walks to pick up his first win as a Ray.
"Garza pitched much better, save one pitch," manager Joe Maddon said. "Much better strike-throwing. Velocity has always been there. … He did a nice job."
Garza said it was just a matter of staying aggressive, as he was at the end of his last start, and not worrying about anything else, including his spot in the rotation. "You can't say much, just go out there and do your job and that's it," he said. "The decision is out of your hands."
To make room for Kazmir, it seemed the Rays would have to drop a pitcher, either sending down Sonnanstine or Garza (who both have options remaining), or shifting one of the starters to the bullpen and dumping a reliever.
But Glover hasn't pitched since April 25 due to slight shoulder issues, and the Rays could buy some time by putting him on the disabled list, perhaps as soon as today. Then they could shift a starter, likely Jason Hammel, who struggled in his last start, to a long-relief role and keep them all.
Maddon was asked after Garza's performance if it was still a tough decision. "It's kind of," he said, "but not as."