BOSTON — First, he had to breathe. Once Matt Moore got that under control, having walked the second and third batters he faced in the sixth inning of the most important game of the Rays' season, he was ready to move on to the next issue, which was getting outs.
The 22-year-old rookie, in his second big-league game, gathered himself in the charged, playoff-like atmosphere of Fenway Park and got the two he needed to escape that inning, then six more after that, playing a crucial role in a critical victory, a 4-3 thriller over the Red Sox.
"It's awesome," said Evan Longoria, who did his part with another key hit. "I gave him a big hug, and I said, 'That's impressive.' … That's a really big situation for him to come in and pitch like he did."
The win moved the Rays (84-67) back to within three games of the AL wild card-leading Red Sox, albeit with only 11 remaining, and an opportunity today to meet their goal of taking three of four in the series from the struggling Sox, who have lost eight of 10. Even better, they feel, with David Price on the mound against Sox knuckleballer Tim Wakefield.
"I like our chances," centerfielder B.J. Upton said. "Definitely, definitely like our chances."
Things didn't look nearly as promising as the Rays trudged out of Fenway on Friday night, frustrated that what they considered unfair umpiring led to a costly loss. That made Saturday's game essentially a must-win and, as at other points when their season seemed lost, they showed the resolve to find a way.
"Isn't it fantastic?" manager Joe Maddon said. "The intensity, all that stuff is where it needs to be. We're already playing playoff baseball and we're not even to the playoffs yet."
They scored first for the third straight game, with Ben Zobrist hitting a two-run homer off Jon Lester, and expanded the lead to 3-0 when Desmond Jennings made a heads-up play to score on a wild pitch in the third.
Jeff Niemann gave the Sox two runs back in their third, then Longoria's two-out single in the fifth gave the Rays the 4-2 lead that Maddon chose to put in Moore's hands, with, oh by the way, the heart of Boston's lineup coming up to start the sixth.
The decision wasn't necessarily spontaneous. Maddon acknowledged that he had been plotting this since Moore's debut — Wednesday in Baltimore, which was the first time he ever saw him throw — figuring the top prospect would play a key role over the weekend, and that Niemann would be the starter most likely in need of relief.
So even when Moore didn't start well — he got Dustin Pedroia on a groundout then walked Adrian Gonzalez and David Ortiz — Maddon didn't waver. He didn't even have any of the other nine relievers warming up.
"My thought was that he had the best stuff to get through that moment, and it was up to him to throw a strike, and he did," Maddon said. "To go three innings right there in those circumstances, that's quite a testament to his makeup."
Moore tried to act like he was still pitching in Montgomery, Ala., or Durham, N.C. (though benefitting from the All-Star Futures Game experience in Phoenix), ignoring the familiar names and faces and focusing on the task.
"I just tried to really feel comfortable out there and control my breathing," he said. "It got easier."
He had trouble to start the seventh, allowing two singles, but kept the damage to one run, striking out Pedroia for the last one, then rolling through the eighth.
"When guys got on early, it wasn't like I said, 'Oh, crap,' " Moore explained. "It was, 'I've got to make some pitches, I'm going to make some pitches.' It was the mentality that I went with, and fortunately it worked out this time."
Maddon showed something, too: He clearly likes his new toy.
"He's kind of like the wild card," Maddon said. "He's the joker right now, he's the wild card. Hopefully he is the wild card."
Marc Topkin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.