ST. PETERSBURG — On a night when their usually tidy defense committed three errors, third baseman Evan Longoria made one of the best plays of the season. On a night when their bullpen was at its thinnest, with closer Troy Percival going on the disabled list and Dan Wheeler unavailable, Grant Balfour stepped up and got a huge save. On a night when their offense was held to five hits by knuckleballing nemesis Tim Wakefield, they took advantage of walks and wild pitches to score enough runs.
And on the second morning of July, after another thrilling 3-1 win over the Red Sox, the Rays have the best record in the majors at 51-32, a 2-1/2-game lead in the American League East and all the confidence — and no questions — they can keep doing what they're doing.
"We've thought it's legit from Day 1, and it's all about what we think about ourselves in here," Longoria said. "I don't know what the media thinks, or what ESPN thinks, or whatever. But in here, it's different. We believe in here, and that's all that matters. We look to one another, and we've got confidence in each other, and we know that everybody's going to get it done."
Or, as Wakefield said, "These guys aren't like they used to be. They're pretty good over there."
As in so many of their wins in their amazing season, this one was a group effort.
Matt Garza, continuing to be in command and control, gave them another strong start. Catcher Dioner Navarro knocked in two runs with two-out singles. J.P. Howell and Balfour finished it before another rollicking, and pro-Rays, crowd of 31,112 at Tropicana Field.
"Obviously it's good to maintain the first-place situation, and to come into the Pit right here and continue to play this well, it's a great moment for us obviously," manager Joe Maddon said.
"But we have to continue to build on it. There's still a long way to go into this season. You can't take anything for granted. There's no complacency. It's one day at a time. All the cliches that we all like to use, but they're true."
Seeing Wakefield on the mound is usually a bad thing for the Rays, given his record 19 wins, but he is now winless in his past three trips to the Trop. And though he didn't give up much, the Rays made the most of it.
They got one run on a Carl Crawford walk, a fielder's choice grounder with Crawford running, an error and a wild pitch. They got another on Longoria's infield single by the mound, a wild pitch and Navarro's two-out single to right. And they got the third on two walks and another clutch hit by Navarro, who raised his average to .316.
"They made what we gave them count," Sox manager Terry Francona said.
Garza may not have been as dominant as in his one-hit wonder in Miami, but he was nearly as effective, retiring the first nine and allowing five hits over seven innings, good enough that Wakefield referred to him as "one of their, if not the best pitcher that they have." In four starts since his June 8 confrontations with Navarro, he is 3-1 with a 1.55 ERA. "It's fun to watch," Maddon said.
Howell got the first two outs of the eighth but left two on, and Balfour took it from there.
And all Longoria did was save the lead, if not the day, diving across the foul line to snare Joey Cora's hot smash with a man on and the Rays up 2-1 then making a strong one-hop throw from his knees to end the seventh.
Longoria called it "a good play" and one his favorites.
"Amazing," Garza said. And that said a lot.
Marc Topkin can be reached at [email protected]