BOSTON — The Rays needed something, anything, to hang on to first place Tuesday.
So they just weaved another amazing tale in their remarkable season and just may have rediscovered the confidence that will keep them from going anywhere, turning what would have been a cruel defeat into an impressive, inspiring and extremely improbable 5-4 victory over the Red Sox.
And all it took was another unorthodox but successful move by manager Joe Maddon that brought Sox closer Jonathan Papelbon into the game; a ninth-inning, game-tying, pinch-hit home run by Dan Johnson, who was called up earlier in the day and — had his flight not been delayed — would have instead been in the starting lineup; a double off the top of the wall by Fernando Perez, a player known more for speed than power; their first hit with a runner in scoring position since Saturday, a run-scoring double by Dioner Navarro; then a perilous ninth-inning escape by closer Troy Percival, who walked the leadoff man and navigated the rest, retiring dangerous David Ortiz along the way.
"It shows that we just never give up," starter Scott Kazmir said. "It shows our heart.
The win not only kept the Rays from falling out of first place but expanded their lead to 1½ games, ensuring they'll still be on top when they leave here tonight.
It also snapped the Rays' four-game losing streak. It gave them their first win of the season in Boston. And it even got them to drop their script about how no win — or game — is more important than any other.
"It's very significant," Maddon said. "Particularly here, with what's been going on, and where we're at in the race. It's a pretty significant win."
And to show their confidence.
Asked if his players believed they were as good as the Red Sox, Maddon replied: "Absolutely, we think we're as good as they are. We think we're as good as anybody."
The Rays (86-57) have been in first place for 54 consecutive days, 67 of the past 72 and 90 overall, and they like it. "We've been there for a while," Maddon said before the game. "We want to stay there."
Kazmir, who stopped the Rays' last losing streak by beating the Yankees last week, gave them another strong outing when they needed it, allowing two runs over six innings, and with Grant Balfour and Dan Wheeler next, they looked to be in position for a 3-2 win.
But Wheeler walked Kevin Youkilis with two outs in the eighth, then allowed a homer to Jason Bay, the outfielder the Rays wanted to acquire from Pittsburgh and Boston did. That's the Bay who had been 1-for-18 off Wheeler.
But, as they had so many time this season, and as they hadn't been able to in losing six of their first seven September games, the Rays came back.
Maddon said it wasn't so much that he wanted Papelbon, who'd worked 11/3 innings the night before, to pitch as that he wanted Johnson, who arrived at 6:50 after a day of travel, in the game.
"A hectic day," Johnson said. "It's part of the job description.''
The Sox had left-hander Hideki Okajima on the mound, so Maddon sent up right-hander Justin Ruggiano to hit for lefty Cliff Floyd, the Sox brought in Papelbon and Maddon unleashed his new secret weapon.
Johnson — who had never faced Papelbon — got ahead 3-and-0, timed a pitch, fouled one off then drove a fastball over the bullpen. Papelbon had faced 119 batters since allowing his last homer. Johnson, acquired in April from Oakland, never had a pinch-hit before, having been 0-for-15.
"This guy Dan Johnson, the new guy, we didn't even know his name yet," Navarro said.
It was that kind of night.
"Sometimes," Maddon said, "things just work out in your favor."
Marc Topkin can be reached at [email protected]