PITTSBURGH — Manager Joe Maddon spoke Sunday about how the Rays' first half — their best in franchise history — has been of the "anonymous" variety, devoid of one shining star.
Though Tampa Bay's 4-3 win over the Pirates at PNC Park fit that theme to a "T," thanks to unexpected heros such as backup catcher Shawn Riggans (who had a homer and two RBIs) and fill-in second baseman Willy Aybar (who homered), what stood out was that the Rays won a game they would have typically let slip away in years past.
They were far from perfect, with two big defensive miscues and missed opportunities at the plate. But at the end of the day, and a 5-1 road trip, the Rays (49-32) owned the majors' best record and the top spot in the AL East. Tampa Bay, which is on pace for 98 wins, moved a half-game ahead of the Red Sox, whom it will host the next three days in one of the most anticipated series in franchise history.
Just as important to the Rays as where they're at is how far they've come. They've won the most games in a first half by any team that had the majors' worst record the year before.
"We come to the park every single day expecting to win," starter Andy Sonnanstine said. "Last year, if we were tied 2-2 in the middle of the game, it always felt like we were down a couple runs. Not with this team. We feel we can do some pretty major things."
Sonnanstine (9-3) was a major reason why the Rays pulled it out, giving the bullpen a much-needed breather by going seven strong innings, scattering five hits in giving up just one earned run. "Sonny had everything going today," Riggans said.
He didn't have his typically trusty defense, which made some "glaring mistakes," as Maddon called them, costing the Rays two runs. In the fourth, B.J. Upton tried backhanding a double to left-center and booted it to the warning track; Freddy Sanchez advanced to third on the play and scored on a sacrifice fly.
In the sixth with Jack Wilson on third, Nate McLouth's slow chopper bounced in front of the plate, and Sonnanstine and Riggans chased it, leaving home uncovered. Sonnanstine threw out McLouth at first, but Wilson scored the tying run before Riggans could race back to his spot.
"I wasn't sure if I had enough time to look back and still get the out at first," Sonnanstine said. "If I look him back and throw to first and he's safe, we've got runners on first and third. … It's a tough situation."
Said Riggans: "Unfortunately I had my head up my butt for a minute there on that one play at the plate. I didn't expect him to get off the mound as good as he did. … (We're) lucky that run didn't really come out to bite us."
Though Maddon said the defense has "taken a few steps back the past week to 10 days," with 12 errors in the past 10 games, pitching and smart baserunning have gotten the Rays through tough moments.
Carlos Pena scored the winner in the eighth after aggressively going from first to third on Aybar's single to rightfield. When Xavier Nady's throw to third was wide left, Pena headed home.
Dan Wheeler gave a run back in the eighth, but Troy Percival pitched a scoreless ninth to put a stamp on a remarkable first half.
"It's only the first half; nobody remembers the first half," Riggans said. "Everybody remembers the second half, what you did the last day of the season. So we've got a lot of work ahead of us."
It starts with Boston tonight.
Joe Smith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.