ST. PETERSBURG — Here's yet another example of how the Rays' fortunes appear to have turned.
Tuesday, they got their biggest break when a freak injury made Kevin Youkilis the latest casualty to leave the Boston lineup, and as a result they ended the night with a 3-2 victory that was their fourth straight and sixth in their past seven games.
"We're getting our proverbial mojo back," manager Joe Maddon said. "We're playing better, we're feeling better about ourselves, we're winning some close games."
Sure, Jeff Niemann gave the second-place Rays (50-33) a solid start to snap a four-game winless streak, and the bullpen — despite some unneeded drama from likely All-Star replacement Rafael Soriano (with Yankees closer Mariano Rivera dropping out) — delivered another good ending. And the offense continued its revival of hits when they're most needed, with John Jaso, Sean Rodriguez, Jason Bartlett and Carl Crawford contributing before 19,902 at Tropicana Field.
But there was no question the defining moment came in the fourth inning when Youkilis came to the plate and, without seeing a pitch, crumpled to the ground and left with what was basically described as a cramp — "which is the most strange thing ever," Youkilis said — then a jammed ankle he said might have been the result of the Trop turf.
"The big break for us (Tuesday night) was the fact that Youkilis gets hurt," Maddon said. "A fortuitous moment for us."
With Youkilis, who expects to play tonight, out of the cleanup spot, the Rays simply decided No. 3 hitter David Ortiz absolutely, positively wasn't going to beat them.
And the plan — as unconventional as it looked — couldn't have worked better as they twice took advantage by walking Ortiz to bring Youkilis' replacement, Niuman Romero, an unheralded 25-year-old rookie playing in his 12th big-league game, to the plate.
In the seventh, protecting a 2-1 lead with Marco Scutaro on first and two outs, Maddon had Lance Cormier intentionally walk Ortiz — moving Scutaro, the potential tying run, into scoring position — and Romero grounded out.
It wasn't quite as bold as walking Texas' Josh Hamilton with the bases loaded in a 2008 game — though Maddon said he would have done that, too, on Tuesday with Ortiz in the right situation — but, still, putting the tying run in scoring position in the seventh inning of a crucial game against the archrival Red Sox?
"It just falls under the category of the right thing to do at that moment," Maddon said. "There was no other way to look at it as far as I was concerned."
Neither did Cormier, who said: "You're not going to let (Ortiz) beat you. That's just the way this game goes."
Then in the ninth, after Bill Hall drew a leadoff walk from Soriano and Eric Patterson tripled him in with two outs, Maddon walked Ortiz again — putting the potential go-ahead run on base — and Romero, whom hitting coach Derek Shelton was familiar with from the Indians organization, grounded out again.
Soriano, who finished with his 23rd save in 24 chances, said he had the same thought: "Right now Ortiz is one of the best hitters, and I'd rather face the guy I never faced before and see what happens."
Said Jaso: "We were able to use that to our advantage."
Marc Topkin can be reached at [email protected]