ST. PETERSBURG — The play that saved the day for the Rays on Wednesday started with Jason Bartlett thinking he'd messed up.
Bartlett dived full-out to his left assuming he'd catch Cesar Izturis' bases-loaded line drive, but couldn't hang on. Rather than ponder the predicament, he picked up the ball he knocked down and fired it to the plate for biggest out in the Rays' 3-1 win.
"Things flash in your head," Bartlett said.
Sure, Pat Burrell (barely), Ben Zobrist and B.J. Upton hit balls over the fences. Jeff Niemann threw them crisply over the plate for seven-plus innings. Carl Crawford leaped into the leftfield wall to catch one as the Rays won their fourth straight, improved to 65-54 and stayed three games off the wild-card lead.
But it was the ball Bartlett made his dazzling play on, the Rays leading 1-0 in the fifth and the Orioles threatening with the bases loaded and no outs, that mattered most.
"Everyone's talking about the three homers, but the play he made pretty much probably saved that game," manager Joe Maddon said. "That ball gets through, that's two points, then all of a sudden the whole game shifts."
Or as O's manager Dave Trembley said: "Niemann should take Bartlett out to dinner because he made the play of the game."
Bartlett didn't have time to look, but he figured that since he thought he'd catch the ball in the air, the runner on third, rookie Matt Wieters, would, too.
"Something in my mind clicked and said, 'He's not too far off the bag so we've got time,' " Bartlett said.
While Niemann was doing whatever he could to get Bartlett to make the play at home — "I was pointing, yelling, doing something, just telling him to throw it this way," he said — first baseman Carlos Peña was stunned into silence.
"I don't know how he did it," Peña said. "When he threw it, I was like, 'Where are you going?' Then I'm like, 'Oh, okay.' … An unbelievable play. It goes to show you there is a sixth tool, like an instinct. There is such a thing."
What made Bartlett's play even better was what followed, as the Rays got speedy Brian Roberts to ground into just his fourth double play of the season, showing the kind of defense they need to rediscover down the stretch.
"That's the kind of stuff that it takes to win into the postseason," Maddon said.
The kind of pitching they got from Niemann will help, too. The rookie right-hander, who unraveled a bit in his past two starts, took a shutout into the eighth and won his major-league rookie-high 11th.
He looks a lot like an ace, providing the Rays the confidence of knowing they'll get a solid outing each time, but Maddon doesn't want to put that on him; not yet, anyway. "I really try to avoid using the A-word," Maddon said. "I'm not into that. He's been extremely consistent."
The final element is the offense, and though they'd prefer to be more consistent, they're at the point where they'll take what they can get.
That included the never-expected 20th homer of Zobrist's amazing season. The fifth homer in 10 games by Burrell, who was encouraged by new catcher Gregg Zaun to swing at the first pitch even though the Rays had made two quick outs to start the fourth. And a second in two days by Upton, who has what Maddon called "a good bounce about him" and renewed confidence.
"It looked more like us," Maddon said.
Marc Topkin can be reached at email@example.com.