SEATTLE — The Rays had a pretty good idea it would take a lot to beat Cliff Lee on Wednesday.
And they got it, the 8-3 win extending their best-in-baseball record to 20-7.
They needed a strong start from Matt Garza, and he outpitched the acclaimed ace, allowing only five hits over eight innings to earn his AL-leading fifth win.
They needed some clutch hits, and Evan Longoria delivered a huge one (after a key Ben Zobrist bunt), a one-out RBI single in the eighth to break a 2-2 tie.
And they needed a few breaks, and there was a big one later in the eighth when the woeful Mariners botched what could have been a double play and instead turned it into two more Tampa Bay runs.
"We played a good game overall,'' Rays manager Joe Maddon said. "It had to be a great pitching performance by Garza, and it was. And then we had to take advantage of moments and situations.''
With the win, the Rays improved their stunning road record to 11-1, best of any team since the 2003 Yankees. Since the 1969 launch of divisional play, only one team started better on the road, the 1984 Tigers, 12-0 on their way to an overall 35-5 mark. Five other teams were also 11-1: the 1976 Phillies, 1977 Dodgers, 1981 A's, 1994 Braves and 2003 Yankees.
"Definitely a quality win for us,'' Zobrist said.
It was something of a cold and lonely night at Safeco Field, with a first-pitch temperature of 51 (though with a mid-game feels-like of 42) and a "crowd" of just 14,627, second smallest in its 10-plus season history.
Garza is as much of a big-game pitcher as anyone on the Rays staff — though he said he has no intention of taking James Shields' nickname of Big Game — and he rose to the occasion of the marquee-level matchup with Lee.
"With him, I've faced (Roy) Halladay, I've faced (CC) Sabathia, you know when those guys take the mound it could be a long night or it could be a really short one,'' Garza said. "I just had to make my pitches, make 'em, and just go toe-to-toe and last as long as he did, and I did that.''
Garza walked one, struck out five and had only one rough stretch, allowing a two-run fourth-inning homer to Franklin Gutierrez, the first round-tripper by a Mariner in 10 days and 76 innings, and then a double before regaining command and allowing only one more hit. Lee went eight innings, allowing five runs (four earned) on 10 hits.
"We knew he would have to match the other guy, and he did," Maddon said.
Plus, Garza had help. His pre-game routine typically includes a meal of Popeye's fried chicken, which can be a challenge on the road. But Garza googled and found one 11 miles away in Renton, Wash., and one of the visiting clubhouse staffers made the trip out and back Wednesday afternoon, delivering 48 pieces and a round of side dishes. "However he got it, he got it,'' Garza said. "It was outstanding.''
The Rays evened the score in their fifth, on RBI hits by Gabe Kapler and Jason Bartlett, and it remained 2-2 until the eighth, when they were good and lucky.
The good part: After a one-out single by Carl Crawford and Zobrist's bunt, Longoria singled hard to left, extending his hitting streak to 11 games, one shy of his career high, and Crawford scored the go-ahead run, and the Rays added two more.
Zobrist bunted on his own, and Maddon praised both the idea and the execution, saying, "It created the momentum for that inning."
Zobrist has been struggling a bit at the plate, and said he started thinking about the bunt as soon as Crawford got on. "I just thought it was the right time in the game, with C.C. being on first base and Longo hitting behind me,'' Zobrist said. "I wanted to get C.C. to second, and sneaking a peek down at third, I thought I had a good chance (for it to be a hit). It was a good spot. And it was probably one of my best bunts ever.''
The lucky part: Carlos Peña's hard liner was right at Josh Wilson, but the substitute shortstop's throw to first, which might have doubled off Longoria, sailed into the Mariners dugout. That allowed Zobrist to score and Longoria to move to third, and he scored on B.J. Upton's single.
The Rays came into the game knowing there was little margin for error against Lee, but Garza, after retiring the first seven and allowing only a bunt single through the first three innings, made a couple in the fourth.
The one-out double by Casey Kotchman wasn't that bad, but the 3-and-1 pitch that Gutierrez hit over the rightfield wall for a two-run home run was.
The Rays came right back to tie it in the fifth. And the rally started at the bottom of their order. No. 8 hitter Dioner Navarro doubled with one out, Kapler scored him with a single to right then leadoff man Bartlett doubled into the leftfield corner, Kapler scoring on a bit of a bold decision by third-base coach Tom Foley.
The Mariners had a chance to go ahead in the seventh when Ryan Langerhans — playing in place of Milton Bradley, who asked for time to deal with personal problems — walked and moved to second on a wild pitch that caromed off Navarro's chest protector. But Zobrist went far to his left to grab Josh Wilson's grounder, and Carlos Peña did an even better job scooping the throw.
"We're just playing,'' Garza said. "We're just going out every night and playing hard and that's all we can ask. Right now we're in a groove and we're just running with it. We're not looking back.''
Marc Topkin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.