BALTIMORE — For nearly four hours Monday night, the Rays did all they could to hang on, escaping jam after jam, first David Price then a procession of four relievers, clinging to a slim lead, stranding 15 Orioles, nine in scoring position.
Then at the end of what several said felt like a playoff game, they were hanging out, sharing handshakes and high-fives and the usual postgame dance celebration after a tense 4-3 victory.
"That was the prevent defense the entire night," Rays manager Joe Maddon said. "At its best."
The Rays continued their latest roll, having won five of six following a six-game losing streak, improving to 71-52 (with 39 to play), putting 4½ games between them and the third-place Orioles and remaining one game behind the American League East leading Red Sox, who won at San Francisco.
The Rays took an early 2-0 lead, Evan Longoria hitting his 25th homer in the first, Kelly Johnson rapping a third straight single in the second. After the Orioles pulled even, the Rays went ahead again 4-2 in the fourth on a majestic blast by Matt Joyce onto the patio above the rightfield wall.
But the story was how they hung on, a sequence of solid performances by their pitchers — and a huge throw by catcher Jose Molina. "Maybe the throw of the year," Maddon said.
Price had his roughest and shortest outing since his return from the disabled list, allowing 10 hits and two walks and lasting only five innings because he threw 99 pitches (more than in any of his complete-game wins) but — somehow — allowing only the two runs.
"That was the most draining it has been in a while," Price said. "We made some pitches when we needed to, I had some hard-hit balls right at guys, you have to have that good fortune sometimes."
Consider that Price — who had to change undershirts and his jersey because he sweated through them — ended four of his innings in distressful situations: Bases loaded once, second and third twice, first and second once.
"He battled his butt off, and he did what he had to do to keep us in the game," Molina said.
Price had made seven previous career starts in which he allowed 10 or more hits and lost them all. But not Monday night.
"That's the whole thing about a veteran kind of a guy," Maddon said. "He's not going to give in to the moment there. They're going to continue to grind it out. They know they can get through it if they make pitches. And that's what he did. It was outstanding."
"Price is the pitcher he is,'' Baltimore's Adam Jones said, "because he knows how to get out of jams like that."
The Orioles pulled to 4-3 on a homer by Matt Wieters leading off the seventh against Joel Peralta, who Maddon used because he wanted to have the switch-hitting Wieters bat left-handed, but the Rays didn't let them get any closer.
As well as Price did in escaping repeatedly, Maddon said the highest praise goes to reliever Jake McGee, who got a huge out to end another threat in the seventh then overcame a botched fly ball by Jason Bourgeois that put the tying run on second in the eighth.
"That felt like a playoff game a little bit, the whole game," McGee said. "It was a big game for us. It seemed like somebody was on every inning."
There was, actually, and the 15 left on tied a Rays record for a nine-inning win.
Then it came down to Fernando Rodney, who had blown his past two saves and was getting his first opportunity since the Aug. 9 meltdown in Los Angeles.
Fitting the theme of the night, he, too, didn't make it easy, allowing a leadoff single, with pinch-runner Alexi Casilla caught trying to steal — "That was an amazing feeling and it gave us a chance to win the game," Molina said — then a walk before ending it.
Molina got most of the attention for the throw, but said Rodney, who is typically notoriously bad at holding runners on. deserved credit for quickening his delivery at such a crucial moment.
"He told me, 'Do the best you can with your slide step,' and it worked,'' Rodney said. "He got a good throw, and we got the out."
In retrospect, Rodney called it a "a weird game.''
Maddon's best adjective to describe it? Thick.
"When you get tense and you get awkward and you get trepidation and craziness, it's thick," he said. "That was a thick game right there."
Marc Topkin can be reached at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter at @TBTimes_Rays.