TORONTO — The crowd was roaring late Sunday afternoon, the Blue Jays were rallying and the Rays were wondering if the momentum and good vibes they'd have from another win to take into their big series in Boston was about to slip away.
Fernando Rodney was on the mound, and, frankly, things had been better. After a leadoff walk and an uncharacteristic error by Evan Longoria, Rodney had just given up a two-run double to Jose Reyes that cut the Rays' lead to one.
And with the tying run on second and no outs, he had to face the dynamic duo of Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion, with Adam Lind and Melky Cabrera behind them.
First, Rodney found a way to settle down. "I know they are tough hitters, so I tried to calm down a little bit," he said. "I talk to myself on the mound and say calm down, make pitch by pitch to these guys, one swing can go ahead and win the game."
Then Rodney got fired up, unleashing a barrage of overpowering fastballs that set the Jays down, allowing only a walk, and preserved the well-earned 4-3 victory.
"I made good pitches, the best that I have," Rodney said. "These guys sometimes look for offspeed (pitches). I said I'm going to die with my fastball no matter what. I think I do it the right way."
The win was significant, both in terms of where the Rays were this season and where they are heading.
"That's the game we had been losing earlier in the year," manager Joe Maddon said. "Now we're winning that same game, and that's why it looked so good."
It looked even better in context, extending the Rays' sizzling run as baseball's best team as they've won 13 of their past 14 and 20 of 24. They will walk into Fenway Park this afternoon 58-41 and 1 ½ games behind the Red Sox, who beat the Yankees 8-7 in 11 innings just before 1 a.m. this morning.
"We try not to look at the standings in the division too much," said Matt Moore, who starts tonight, "but it's obvious and apparent they've been on top for a while, so it's going to be a good chance for us to do ourselves some good."
The Rays haven't done too well against the Sox thus far, losing nine of the 12 games, including five of six in Boston, primarily the result of a lack of offense plus some bullpen blowups.
"I want to believe that we're playing a better brand of baseball than earlier in the season and we're back close to what we're normally accustomed to doing on a nightly basis," Maddon said. "I want to believe we should match up better this time through."
He has good reason the way they've been going, combining their standard solid pitching, clutch hitting and tidy defense, Sunday the latest example.
Rookie Chris Archer delivered another impressive outing, battling into and, more important, through the seventh inning. Jamey Wright handled the eighth with Joel Peralta off and Jake McGee on emergency-only duty. Then it was Rodney.
Facing knuckleballing nemesis R.A. Dickey, the hitters managed their frustration and were rewarded. Longoria hit a tying home run in the fourth, then in the sixth Luke Scott hit a two-run homer and Kelly Johnson followed with a solo shot.
In the ninth, Rodney made the first mistake, walking .146-hitting John Thole. Longoria made the next mistake, ranging far to his left and diving to stop Brett Lawrie's grounder but rushing and overthrowing Johnson at second.
Reyes' double made it 4-3, but Rodney, who found the mound uncomfortable due to a hole and the crowd of 41,247 a bit distracting, took catcher Jose Lobaton's advice to stay away from the changeup. He had been throwing it too hard and decided to stick with his fastball to get it done.
Rodney, who likely will be off tonight, struck out Bautista. After buzzing Encarnacion, Rodney got him to hit a grounder to Longoria, whose "tentative" throw was picked by Loney. Rodney pitched around and walked Lind, then on his 35th pitch got Cabrera on a grounder to end it.
"A lot of fun today," Rodney said.
Marc Topkin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Battle for first starts tonight
Pitching matchups for the Rays' four-game series at Boston. All games are scheduled for 7:10 p.m. and will be broadcast on Sun Sports.
Tonight: Rays — LHP Matt Moore (13-3, 3.44); Red Sox — RHP Brandon Workman (0-0, 5.40)
Tuesday: Rays — RHP Roberto Hernandez (5-10, 4.90); Red Sox — LHP Jon Lester (8-6, 4.58)
Wednesday: Rays — LHP David Price (4-5, 4.03); Red Sox — LHP Felix Doubront (7-3, 3.76)
Thursday: Rays — RHP Jeremy Hellickson (9-3, 4.62); Red Sox — RHP John Lackey (7-6, 2.78)