TORONTO — As the Rays resumed play after the All-Star break, manager Joe Maddon introduced a strategy designed to preserve reliever Joel Peralta for later in the season, and potentially postseason, by using him a bit less now.
But two days in, that plan seems quite flawed.
In both games, the replacement reliever who started the eighth inning failed to get an out, putting Peralta in an even more taxing situation.
But what hasn't changed is Peralta's remarkable ability to handle whatever the Rays need, showcased again Saturday when he worked out of a bases-loaded, no-out mess at the most critical juncture of their 4-3 win over Blue Jays.
"What I've been trying to do is make it easier for him, and I'm just making it more difficult, and what he does right there is spectacular," Maddon said. "It was Houdini-esque."
The win was the sizzling Rays' 12th in their past 13 games and 19th in 23 as they improved to 57-41 and move to within 1½ games of the first-place Red Sox in the American League East.
They struck for early runs, two delivered by rookie Wil Myers; got five innings from starter Jeremy Hellickson, who was battling light-headedness as one of a half-dozen ill players; and finished with exciting relief work on a smoking-hot, roof-open day.
"The tenacity of the group is obvious," Maddon said. "I can't say enough."
Hellickson left with a 4-2 lead that Alex Torres took to the eighth, Maddon wanting the young lefty to face right-handed sluggers Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion — and maybe Adam Lind to finish the inning — before having to turn to Peralta.
But Torres pitched too cautiously, walking Bautista and Encarnacion. And there was Peralta, 37, heading to the mound for his AL-most 51st appearance, in an even more difficult spot, with the go-ahead run at the plate.
"I think they try to give me a rest, but it's not working right now," he said. "I don't know. It's kind of backward. I'm getting in there and throwing more pitches."
Peralta at first made it more of a mess, falling behind Lind 3-and-0, then walking him on a full count.
And with the bases loaded, no outs and a game his teammates had battled to win in the balance, Peralta — equal parts ability and guile — proved once again how valuable he is.
He got Colby Rasmus on a foul pop-up. He got Maicer Izturis to look at strike three.
And then after going to a full count, and after a foul ball, with a crowd of 42,639 in full roar, he got J.P. Arencibia to swing and miss at a nasty split-finger.
"He lives on the edges, keeps you off-balance, throws anything at any time. He keeps it out of the middle," Jays manager John Gibbons said. "He's nails under pressure. He doesn't give you anything."
There was nervousness on the Rays' bench at the time but plenty of praise afterward for Peralta. Fernando Rodney — who had drama of his own in the ninth — took it to a new level.
"Joel is all Joel," Rodney said. "He's like Manny (Ramirez); he does all kinds of stuff to win the game."
It wasn't quite won yet. Rodney walked the No. 9 hitter with one out in the ninth, then allowed a two-out single to Bautista, bringing Encarnacion to the plate with a chance to win it.
Instead, Encarnacion hit a grounder back at the mound that Rodney saw all the way until it bounced — and Rodney played it absolutely horribly, his glove on top of the ball rather than trying to scoop it, allowing a run to score. But Rodney regrouped, retiring Lind on a flyout to end it, then mockingly tossing the glove away.
Certainly, as Maddon said, it was a team win. But it was Peralta who, not necessarily by design, played the biggest role.
And he felt pretty good about it, ranking it among his most impressive escape acts.
"Today was really big," Peralta said. "I've probably had some of those before, but as important as this game is right now, we're in second place a couple of games behind Boston, so this is on top."
Marc Topkin can be reached at [email protected]