ST. PETERSBURG — With manager Joe Maddon's goal of getting to .500 through 100 games mathematically dead, the Rays turned their attention to Maddon's next short-term objective: try to win each series.
They kept that goal alive Tuesday by grinding out the kind of victory necessary if they want to play a meaningful September. The Rays overcame a jittery start and a rocky night by the bullpen to take a 4-3 win over the Royals at Tropicana Field.
"We have to win these games like this," Maddon said. "We're used to doing this in the past. We're starting to get that feeling back again now."
Even if some of their numbers weren't pretty. The Rays (42-51) were outhit 13-8 and allowed a runner in every inning but still gutted out their ninth victory in 11 games in front of a crowd of 12,818.
Starter Jeremy Hellickson initially looked like a pitcher making his 2014 debut after January elbow surgery but passed an early test by getting Omar Infante to fly out with runners on first and third in his first major-league inning in nine months.
"Big to get out of that first inning and kind of calm those nerves a little bit," Hellickson said.
Hellickson fought through a 10-pitch at-bat against Salvador Perez in the third before finally striking him out. He worked with a low-90s fastball and strong changeups and curveballs but still lasted only 41/3 innings and 84 pitches (54 strikes). He left with two runners on and one out in the fifth.
Brad Boxberger allowed the only run charged to Hellickson but avoided more damage to earn his second win.
The Rays' offense did its job with Evan Longoria's two-run single off of Royals starter Jason Vargas in the sixth. The Rays tacked on two more runs in the eighth with James Loney's RBI double and Logan Forsythe's sacrifice fly.
"It would be nice if that didn't happen," Royals manager Ned Yost said.
Those insurance runs proved necessary after the Rays' bullpen stumbled. Former closer Grant Balfour gave up Lorenzo Cain's two-out triple past diving rightfielder Kevin Kiermaier and a walk in the seventh, but he escaped without allowing a run. Joel Peralta allowed two singles in the eighth but teamed with Jake McGee to finish another shutout inning.
The Royals then got three hits and two runs off of McGee in the ninth to snap his streak of 14 consecutive scoreless appearances.
"They have good hitters over there," McGee said.
McGee secured his sixth save by striking out Infante with a 99 mph fastball and stranding Christian Colon as the tying run at second — the last of 11 runners Kansas City left on base.
"Jake didn't break," Maddon said.
Neither did the rest of the Rays, who will try to accomplish Maddon's next goal by winning their fourth consecutive series today.
Contact Matt Baker at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @MBakerTBTimes.