ST. PETERSBURG — The Red Sox have seemed determined to give the Rays the American League wild card. Saturday night, the Blue Jays did, too.
With tremendous compliance from the Jays, the Rays rolled to a much-needed 6-2 victory that, combined with Boston's latest loss, provided a significant boost in their bid to complete their dramatic run to the postseason.
Five unearned runs courtesy of Toronto's defense helped. So did a monumentally important five-inning relief outing by rookie Alex Torres after starter Jeff Niemann lasted only one inning. And Johnny Damon's three-run homer in the eighth provided nice insurance.
"We'll take it,'' centerfielder B.J. Upton said. "Regardless of how it was done, we've got to win, and that's all that matters.'' With the win, the Rays moved back to 1½ games of the wild-card-holding Red Sox, who lost for the 15th time in their last 19 games and play a day-night doubleheader today at Yankee Stadium.
The challenge for the Rays remains formidable, and the margin for a misstep slim to none, with only four games left.
But if the Rays, who were nine games out on Sept. 2, can win again today and the Red Sox were to get swept, the teams would be tied by the end of the night. Conversely, if the Rays lose today and the Red Sox were to sweep the Yankees, the Sox could clinch at least a tie and would need just one win in their final three games to oust the Rays.
"Hopefully this is a big pick-me-up for (today),'' Damon said. "I know our offense seems to come and go in bunches. Hopefully the next four games will be great for us.''
"It should be a fun week of baseball,'' Upton said.
Though the Rays had notice that the Sox had lost — Boston was down big early as the game was shown on the Trop video board during batting practice — their game didn't start well, with Niemann, apparently still affected by his sore back, lasting only one messy inning and putting the Rays in a 2-0 hole before a crowd of 27,773.
Niemann — whose start was pushed back from Thursday due to upper-back soreness — looked uncomfortable and struggled through a miserable 38-pitch first inning, fortunate to allow only two runs.
He had obvious trouble throwing his fastball, clocked only three times on the stadium board above 90 mph, and didn't have command, going to three balls on the first three batters.
The first flied to deep right, the second walked and the third, Jose Bautista, hit a home run, his MLB-leading 43rd. Things didn't get much better as Niemann got another long out, walked the next batter and gave up a double to Colby Rasmus, but he escaped when David Cooper grounded out.
The Rays got the two runs back, though more courtesy of the Blue Jays — who essentially gave them six outs — than their own doing.
"The first inning was a godsend to us,'' Damon said.
Upton should have been the second out, but first baseman Cooper dropped his foul popup, and Upton instead reached on a bloop single. A strikeout later, Ben Zobrist should have been the third out, but shortstop Mike McCoy threw wildly to first, allowing Upton to score and Zobrist to second.
Then Damon should have been the third out, but three Jays — second baseman Kelly Johnson, centerfielder Rasmus and McCoy — watched his popup to shallow center drop, and Zobrist scored.
Zobrist homered in the fourth to put the Rays up 4-2, and the bullpen finished. Torres went five, then rookie Brandon Gomes, Joel Peralta and Kyle Farnsworth, looking sharp in his first outing since a Sept. 10 elbow issue, one each.
Maddon admittedly was gambling a bit with his lineup, starting lefty-swinging Matt Joyce in rightfield against Toronto left-hander Ricky Romero and rookie Jose Lobaton behind the plate.