SEATTLE — If the Rays are going to be playing in October, these are the type of games they have to win in August.
Facing a struggling team and a scuffling starter. Missing two key players from their lineup. On the road. And with a chance to gain ground after the second-place Red Sox had already lost.
Friday night, they took care of all that, beating the AL-worst Mariners 5-3 without injured Evan Longoria or Jason Bartlett, and extending their American League East lead to 3½ games over the Red Sox, who are playing a tough four-game series at Central-leading Chicago, and 6 1/2 games over the Yankees.
The Rays improved to 69-46, one win shy of their franchise- best mark, and moved back to a record-tying 23 games over .500, for several reasons:
• James Shields provided his usual solid start, working into the seventh, scattering nine hits but allowing only three runs, and improved to 10-7.
• Carlos Pena continued his late-summer revival, homering for the sixth time in his past 14 games, and the 21st overall, and singling in a run.
• Reliever Grant Balfour came on in the seventh to get out red-hot Raul Ibanez, who homered in the ninth off Dan Wheeler to beat the Rays on Thursday, and Troy Percival finished with a sharp 1-2-3 ninth for his 349th save.
• And Mariners shortstop Yuniesky Betancourt looked like a knuckehead on the night his bobblehead was given out, making a careless throwing error that led to three Rays runs in the third.
"I thought we hit the ball really well, and I like the at-bats even though we only got five points," manager Joe Maddon said. "Shieldsy was not as sharp as he can be, but he battled through. We played with a lot of intensity and I liked that. The bullpen was really good."
"It was a combination of a lot of things tonight."
Mariners starter Carlos Silva, who came in 4-12 with a 5.92 ERA and without a home win since April 12, should have been an easy mark, though the Rays let him hang around for six innings.
Pena got the Rays started by leading off the second with a homer, though the Mariners answered with a two-run shot by Wladimir Balentien.
The Rays stayed after Silva and scored four in the third, in large part thanks to Betancourt's error.
Ben Zobrist, continuing to impress (and make a case to stay) as Bartlett's backup, started the rally with a single. Akinori Iwamura followed with a single, and B.J. Upton delivered another, scoring Zobrist, and alertly taking second on the throw home.
Carl Crawford then hit what should have been a routine grounder to short, but Bentancourt, perhaps rushed, sailed the ball well over first and into the camera bay, scoring Iwamura and Upton. Plus, Crawford got to move to second, and he scored when Pena delivered another clutch hit, a single to center, making it 5-2.
Pena said the key to his recent success is a simple approach, that he and hitting coach Steve Henderson have spent a lot of time talking about. "I'm seeing the ball well, and I'm focusing on that,'' Pena said. "It sounds kind of cliche, but it's true. If you can keep it that simple, you kind of allow yourself to play, you kind of get out of your own way.''
The Mariners didn't quit and scratched out another run off Shields in the fourth, and all with two outs. Jeff Clement doubled. Balentien reached on an infield single that made it obvious the Rays were missing third baseman Evan Longoria, as replacement Willy Aybar had trouble making the play on a slow roller. Another infield hit by Bryan LaHair made it 5-3, and Balfour kept it there with another solid 11/3-inning outing.
The Rays are now 8-2 in Shields' last 10 starts, as he makes it his prime goal to keep the score close no matter what, even on a night when he said he got by more on "straight guts" than good stuff and had to "bulldog'' his way through the game.
"If they score five runs for me, it's my job to win that game,'' Shields said. "We did a great job overall, and it's good to have a win coming off that loss.''
Marc Topkin can be reached at email@example.com.