ST. PETERSBURG — As the Rays try to make a historic comeback and climb back into the playoff picture, they'll take a win any way they can get it.
Saturday night, their ninth in a row came thanks to Boston's missed chances in the field, the dugout and even the stands. Those plays, plus one of Grant Balfour's best outings of the year, resulted in a 3-0 victory over the Red Sox at Tropicana Field.
The Rays' winning streak is the second longest in club history — three shy of the 12 in a row they won in June 2004. Coupled with Baltimore's loss to Seattle, the Rays (51-53) moved 61/2 games behind the first-place Orioles in the AL East and 31/2 behind the Yankees and Blue Jays for the second wild-card spot.
"We see ourselves climbing up the ladder," Balfour said after his first win of the year. "We're not at the top yet."
But they're closer after starter Jeremy Hellickson and the Rays stitched together their 12th shutout of the year, with some help from Boston.
The first key play came after Red Sox slugger David Ortiz blasted a shot to rightfield in the first, in front of an announced crowd of 26,659. A fan in a Red Sox jersey potentially saved the Rays a run by catching Ortiz's ball at the top of the wall for a ground-rule double, not a home run.
"It was a nice catch there," manager Joe Maddon said.
Hellickson struck out Mike Napoli in the next at-bat to strand Ortiz.
The Red Sox had a hand in the Rays' first two runs.
Desmond Jennings sped to third after Boston mishandled his leadoff bunt in the first, and he scored on Matt Joyce's single. In the fourth, Boston catcher Christian Vazquez threw to second to try to catch Yunel Escobar off the bag. Escobar was called safe, and replays showed a close play, but Red Sox manager John Farrell said the play was too inconclusive to challenge.
"He looked pretty out to me," Boston starter John Lackey said.
The Rays made that caution costly. Kevin Kiermaier singled to center in the next at-bat to score Escobar.
The Rays' pitchers and defense wouldn't let Boston capitalize on its opportunities. Hellickson threw his second scoreless but short start. After a wild pitch, he defused a two-on threat in the fourth by striking out Jackie Bradley Jr. to end the inning.
"I made a big pitch when I needed to," said Hellickson, who left after 42/3 innings and 96 pitches.
The Rays also turned an inning-ending 4-3-2 double play in the third to prevent a run, and Boston left nine on base. Balfour helped strand two in the sixth after Jonny Gomes' broken-bat single off Jeff Beliveau rolled between Escobar at short and third baseman Evan Longoria. Neither fielded it — and neither covered third, letting Napoli get there from first with no outs. But Beliveau and Balfour got the final three outs to end the threat.
"We need it," Maddon said of another strong bullpen outing and the Rays' 15th win in their past 19 games. "We absolutely need it."
Contact Matt Baker at [email protected]. Follow @MBakerTBTimes.