By MARC TOPKIN
SEATTLE – When the Rays reached the milestone in 2004 of not finishing last for the first time, they celebrated – somewhat awkwardly – with a champagne toast the following day before wrapping up what had been their most successful season with 70 wins.
Saturday, they won their 70th game of this season, but they were less likely to celebrate than exhale - after rallying, losing the lead, escaping two tight jams, then rallying again and hanging on for an 8-7, 11-inning victory over the Mariners.
"It doesn't get,'' Rays manager Joe Maddon said, "much more wild than that.''
Dioner Navarro's sacrifice fly scored Ben Zobrist with the winner as the Rays cobbled a run without a hit, and Troy Percival, pitching on his 39th birthday, finished for his 350th save. That was all after new reliever Chad Bradford escaped a bases-loaded threat in the 10th, with the Rays turning a third-to-home-to-first inning-ending double play.
With 46 more games to play, and a 3 ½-game lead in the American League East, the Rays expect to have more significant accomplishments to toast than tying a meager franchise record for wins.
"We have to keep blazing new trails, we've got raise the bar even higher,'' Maddon said. "Of course that was the win number that has been stuck in infamy within this organization. It was not necessarily a goal. I don't want to make 70 wins a goal. It's nice to get past that, then we can stop talking about that and truly do what you're here to do, and that's to win a pennant. And that requires over 90 wins.''
The Rays (70-46) worked hard after a rough start from Matt Garza and a depleted lineup that was again missing top run producer Evan Longoria and included the unlikely Nos. 5-6 duo of DH Jason Bartlett and Ben Zobrist left them in a bad spot, down 5-1 with 10 outs remaining.
But a little led to a lot as they rallied with two outs in the sixth, loading the bases on a double, a walk and an infield single, then going on to score six times and take a 7-5 lead. Their bullpen looked, once again, like it was going to take it from there, as J.P. Howell froze dangerous Ichiro Suzuki to end the sixth with a man on and Grant Balfour worked out of a two-on jam in the seventh.
But then Dan Wheeler, who gave up the game-losing homer on Thursday, gave up the lead in the eighth. Doubles by St. Petersburg College product Bryan LaHair and pinch-hitter Jeff Clement produced one run, and a ground ball single by Ichiro Suzuki delivered the other.
The Mariners threatened in the ninth off Bradford, getting two on with one out. And, after the Rays left the bases loaded, more severely in the 10th, when they started with a pair of singles. Bradford got a ground ball that led to a force out at second, then intentionally walked red-hot Raul Ibanez, who beat them Thursday, to load the bases with one out.
The Rays went to an unsual (and somehwat confusing) five-infielder alignment, with centerfielder B.J. Upton coming in to second base to prevent a ground ball from getting through the middle. Instead, Bradford got Adrian Beltre, after five fouls — "it seemed like 25,'' Bradford said — to ground sharply to third, and Willy Aybar made what Maddon called "a great play" and threw home for one out and Dioner Navarro was the perfect middleman and fired to first for the second.
"I think,'' Navarro said, "that was the hardest play I ever made.''
Bradford, who arrived just before batting practice, ended up with the win in his first appearance. "What a game, that was unbelievable,'' Bradford said. "I was just hoping he'd hit it right at somebody, and he did, so it worked out.''
Maddon said he gave Bradford "a lot of credit'' for battling through the inning and throwing so many quality pitches.
Said Navarro: "Bradford was feeling the heat.''
The winning rally off Miguel Batista started with Zobrist drawing a leadoff walk, then stealing second on an unsuccessful hit-and-run. Figuring Aybar would pull the ball Maddon led him swing away, and his grounder to first sent Zobrist to third. Navarro's fly to left scored him.
"It was just a bunch of little things,'' Zobrist said, "and I think that kind of epitomized our night tonight. We did a lot of little things well that helped us stay in that game.''
Garza put the Rays in an early 5-0 hole, giving up a home run to Suzuki on his second pitch, allowing a double in each of his first four innings, and 10 hits for his 5 2/3 innings' work.
The Rays didn't do much against Mariners spot starter Ryan Rowland-Smith, a 25-year-old called up from Triple-A to make his third career big-league start, with their only run in the first five innings on Gabe Gross' eighth homer.
But the Rays ran up his pitch count enough (105) that manager Jim Riggleman took him out after they loaded the bases with two outs in the sixth. And they ganged up on reliever Cesar Jimenez, scoring six runs on four consecutive RBI hits – an infield single by Akinori Iwamura, doubles by B.J. Upton and Carl Crawford and a single by Carlos Pena.
Even that wasn't easy though, as Upton coasted coming around third to score the go-ahead run on Crawford's liner to right-center and would not have reached the plate in time had Crawford not somehow eluded shortstop Yuniesky Betancourt's tag. Home plate umpire Mike Winters was poised to wave off the run had Crawford been called out.
Crawford then nearly did the same, crossing the plate just before Pena was tagged out at second.
Maddon said he thought it was a matter of Upton and Crawford "not understanding the rules of the game."
Pena had an eventful night, as he was struck on the side of the face by a pitch in his first at-bat.
Garza had been alternating good and bad starts over the last month, but ended up with a second sub-par performance.
"It is big,'' Navarro said. "We have to keep winning.''
Marc Topkin can be reached at [email protected]