ST. PETERSBURG — Throughout Gabe Kapler's offensive struggles this season, manager Joe Maddon maintained he wasn't going to give up on him; that the streaky outfielder would eventually break out of it.
Kapler, signed in the offseason in part because of his success against left-handed pitchers, entered Friday's game with a team-low .173 batting average and just three hits in his previous 15 games.
But Maddon kept the faith, pinch-hitting Kapler in the eighth against Nationals lefty reliever Ron Villone.
And Kapler delivered, hitting the winning homer to lift the Rays to a 4-3 win over the last-place Nationals in front of 18,273 at Tropicana Field.
"It's got to start somewhere," Maddon said. "His swing is not necessarily fluid. And I think part of that is when he's cold, he gets off. But when he gets the feel going, heads-up because once the feeling arrives, he gets real toasty."
Kapler's at-bat was fitting for his season. As with Maddon giving him another chance, he was given a second chance when Washington first baseman Nick Johnson dropped a potential inning-ending popup in foul territory.
"I was screaming at the ball as loud as I could, and I think it heard me and ducked away from Nick's glove there," Kapler said. "I guess maybe I wanted that opportunity badly."
Said Johnson: "I just missed it."
On the next pitch, Kapler hit it just over the leftfield fence, keeping the streak alive of 31 straight games at the Trop in which a homer has been hit. More important for them, it gave the Rays (32-31) their third straight win and their seventh in 20 one-run games.
"In order to get back to the promised land, you have to win those one-run games," Maddon said. "You have to win 3-2, 2-1, 4-3 games to win a championship."
Rays right-hander Matt Garza got off to a rough start thanks to a 34-pitch first inning. He gave up consecutive singles to Cristian Guzman and Johnson. And with one out, Adam Dunn hit an RBI single and Elijah Dukes — the former Ray playing at the Trop for the first time since the December 2007 trade — came through with a two-run double, giving Washington a 3-0 lead. But he battled through 52/3 innings, giving them a chance.
"I didn't have my best stuff. I didn't feel good," Garza said. "I just did what I could and control what I can control, and that's making pitches at the right time."
So did the Rays bullpen, which continued their recent string of success. Joe Nelson, Dan Wheeler and J.P. Howell combined for 31/3 scoreless innings, extending the bullpen's streak to 17 consecutive clean innings.
"Awesome," Maddon said.
"We have a lot of guys who can put up zeros, and it leads to a lot of positives," Howell said.
Tampa Bay got their first three runs through small ball with Ben Zobrist and B.J. Upton reaching first and stealing a base (Upton stole two) before scoring. Gabe Gross tied the score with a two-out double in the sixth.
But even with Gross swinging well, Maddon pinch-hit Kapler for him in the eighth.
"They've shown a tremendous amount of loyalty to me. So for me, that's pretty special," Kapler said. "That says a lot. And it's an honor to have that kind of loyalty thrust in my direction. I'm most appreciative."
Joe Smith can be reached at joesmith @sptimes.com.