ST. PETERSBURG — Veteran reliever Dan Wheeler said he believes many games are won or lost in the last three innings.
Turns out, the trusty Rays bullpen was forced to work a little overtime in Friday's 5-2 win over the Tigers. But it proved again why it has been a big reason for the club's rise to the top of the American League East.
Ace Scott Kazmir's struggles forced him out in the fifth, but the Rays took advantage of clutch work by their relievers and some timely hits to reach yet another milestone in front of 26,403 fans at Tropicana Field.
"You just can't say enough about the bullpen," Kazmir said. "They've just been closing the door every time they get a chance. We're playing quality baseball, scrapping and winning games.
"These guys have picked me up so many times."
With the victory, Tampa Bay tied a club record with a majors-best 41 home wins (set in 2004 and 2006). More important, the Rays (64-44) stayed three games ahead of the Red Sox and moved 51/2 ahead of the Yankees in the AL East with five games left on the current homestand.
Kazmir's night got off to a rough start as he couldn't find the strike zone. His 32-pitch first inning included four walks — one with the bases loaded. But Kazmir minimized the damage.
In all, he allowed just the two runs. The other came on Miguel Cabrera's triple in the third. With one on and two outs, Cabrera hit a towering fly ball to deep left-center. Centerfielder B.J. Upton said he lost track of it, and the ball caromed off the wall.
Tigers manager Jim Leyland argued, believing the ball hit the C-ring catwalk, which would have made it a two-run homer. Instead, the Rays tied the score at 2 in the bottom half of the inning before Kazmir was pulled. Kazmir, who tied a career high with six walks, lasted just 42/3, matching his second-shortest outing of the season.
Kazmir said he felt "great" physically but thinking about his previous problems with pitch count got him off of his typical game plan. (Kazmir is averaging 17.64 pitches per inning, second most in the American League.)
"It feels like I've got to get back to being more aggressive," Kazmir said. "It seems like I'd approach a hitter and try to get ahead and feel like I maybe let up just to get that strike when I shouldn't. I should just go out there and attack hitters."
Grant Balfour came in for Kazmir in the fifth and attacked Gary Sheffield to get one of the biggest outs of the game. He inherited runners on first and second with two outs and fell behind 2-and-0 to Sheffield before striking him out looking.
"Incredible," Rays manager Joe Maddon said. "I just wanted somebody that can miss a bat right there. That was a huge moment."
Sheffield had another shot in the seventh, batting with the bases loaded and two outs. But Wheeler recorded another hold, getting Sheffield to ground out to Jason Bartlett at short.
Bartlett got the Rays offense going in the third with a leadoff triple. He scored on Akinori Iwamura's single. Iwamura later scored on a wild pitch.
Tampa Bay continued to struggle with runners in scoring position (1-for-10), but Maddon praised his hitters for having better at-bats. He was encouraged by Carl Crawford (who extended his hitting streak to six games), and Carlos Pena, who delivered his fourth homer in seven games.
Pena's shot in the sixth — a 411-foot blast off starter Zach Miner — served as the go-ahead run. In the seventh, Evan Longoria hit his 20th homer of the season, and the Rays bullpen and defense did the rest.
In the ninth, Gabe Gross helped cap Troy Percival's 24th save with a spectacular diving catch, robbing Magglio Ordonez.
Joe Smith can be reached at email@example.com