ARLINGTON, Texas — As the Rays tried to get a read on how Tropical Storm Fay would disrupt them at home this week, there were some good signs in their 7-4 Sunday night victory that completed a seasonlong 10-game road trip.
B.J. Upton responded to his benching with his first three-hit game since late May. Scott Kazmir completed six innings and won for the first time in nearly a month. Carlos Pena continued his summer sizzle with his 14th homer since July 4.
And there's this: The Rays (75-48) lost Carl Crawford, Evan Longoria and Troy Percival to injuries and benched Upton for a lack of hustle during the 11-day journey but went 7-3 and increased their lead over the second-place Red Sox from three games to 4½ in the AL East.
"That's obviously very good,'' manager Joe Maddon said. "We won some really difficult games on this trip, including tonight's.''
It certainly was more dramatic than necessary.
The Rays led 7-1 in the fourth inning and cruised into the ninth, when Juan Salas, in his debut, and Grant Balfour made a mess. Worse, it brought ex-Ray Josh Hamilton to the plate with the bases loaded as the tying run.
Maddon, with advice from pitching coach Jim Hickey, employed unconventional — though not unprecedented (see Barry Bonds) — strategy by intentionally walking Hamilton to force in one run, then brought in Dan Wheeler to face, and finish off, Marlon Byrd.
"I didn't want to see Hamilton there,'' Maddon said. "I mean, listen, it's his year, and why not have him hit a grand slam right there and really screw up ours.''
Said Byrd: "It was the right move in the right spot. When the guy's AL manager of the year like he's going to be, things go your way.''
Maddon said given all that happened, it would have been "very attractive" to go 5-5 on the trip, and he was impressed with what they did and how they did it: "The resolve of our group and the kind of games that we've won indicates to me that we're there. You talk about 9=8 — nine guys playing nine innings hard every night — it's great to see that."
After the game, he raved again: "You look at what's going on without Carl, without Longo, Percy going down, all the stuff that we're fighting against … to be able to do that really speaks a lot of our players and the will and the want to win. That's what we've been all about, and I'm really proud.''
Their reward is back-to-back series this week against two other first-place teams, the Angels at the Trop (Fay permitting) and the White Sox in Chicago, and Maddon likes that challenge, too: "It's great.''
Upton, pulled from Friday's game and punished Saturday, moved into the leadoff spot and delivered: double, opposite-field homer (his first since Aug. 3), single and his second three-RBI game of the season. (He'd had 10 RBIs in his previous 30 games).
"I just saw him raise the level of his play today,'' Maddon said. "He can be the catalyst for us.''
Kazmir, in the ongoing effort to refine his mechanics and rediscover his slider, was sharper.
"It felt a lot better,'' Kazmir said. "A whole lot better.''
He allowed two runs on four hits, struck out seven and walked four and was most pleased he got to throw 114 pitches and work the sixth inning. "Everything was working,'' he said. For all.
Marc Topkin can be reached at email@example.com.