ST. PETERSBURG — First baseman Carlos Peña provided a spark in the Rays' two wins in Texas with his words, and his bat.
Starters Matt Garza and Wade Davis set the tone with their pitching performances.
But the Rays bullpen was the unsung hero in the momentum-swinging weekend, setting the stage for today's Game 5 of the American League division series by shutting the door on the Rangers.
The relievers allowed one run and two hits over seven innings in Games 3 and 4, becoming the security blanket they've been for most of this season.
Pitching coach Jim Hickey said a bullpen is much like an offensive line in football, anonymous until a mistake is made but incredibly valuable.
"You cannot win without a good bullpen, period, end of story," Hickey said. "And not only can you not win, but it generally is the heart or at least the main reason why you do win. As a coach this is my fourth time through the postseason, and that's been the case pretty much every time.
"They performed well all year long, and it doesn't surprise me that as we advanced to win that they've been a huge reason why we've won."
Manager Joe Maddon praised right-hander Grant Balfour for what he did in Sunday's 5-2 win. With Davis pulled after five-plus innings, lefty specialist Randy Choate got an out before Balfour pitched 12/3 innings, retiring the heart of Texas' order — Michael Young, Josh Hamilton and Vladimir Guerrero — on just seven pitches in the seventh.
"That," Choate said, "was amazing."
It was also huge because the Rays didn't want to overextend their eighth-inning setup man, Joaquin Benoit, who had thrown 12/3 shutout innings the night before to pick up the win.
"What Balfour did was tremendous," Maddon said. "His performance really made that game work for us."
Said Rangers manager Ron Washington: "They have some power arms down there, and the past two days back in Texas, they got an opportunity to go to them."
Third baseman Evan Longoria pointed out how the Rays bullpen has helped them shorten the game, with Benoit and Rafael Soriano (who had 45 saves in 48 chances) "being as good as you can be for an (eighth-inning) and (ninth-inning) guy all year."
"When you have that ability as a bullpen, it gives you a lot of confidence throughout — the whole team," Longoria said. "We feel if … you get ahead and you're able to maintain that lead, and once it gets down to those later innings, we've got a good chance of winning a ballgame."
Hickey said more than the Rays relievers' ERA an AL-best 3.35 in the regular season — is the "percentage of the time you do go out there and do the job you were sent out there to do."
"The elite guys do it nine times out of 10," Hickey said. "And I believe there's two of them down there, and maybe three, that have done it more than nine times out of 10, which is pretty incredible."
Joe Smith can be reached at [email protected]