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Tampa Bay Rays end road trip 4-3 after hanging on to beat Baltimore Orioles 8-6

BALTIMORE — The night certainly wasn't perfect, not with Pat Burrell leaving to have his stiff neck examined, Carl Crawford coming out with a bruised right shoulder and Troy Percival giving up a pair of ninth-inning homers to make it much more tense than it needed to be.

But the way things have been going for the Rays, they were more than happy to take their 8-6 victory Wednesday night over the Orioles and head home.

After playing 22 of their first 35 games on the road (and going 10-12, including 4-3 on this three-city trip) and a league-high 22 games within their rugged, or as manager Joe Maddon said, "bloody" division (and going 12-10, including 9-6 against the Red Sox and Yankees), the Rays open a stretch of their schedule that should be easier, or at least, as principal owner Stuart Sternberg said last week, "won't be as trying."

Beginning tonight at home against Cleveland, which has the AL's worst record, the Rays (16-19) play 20 of their next 31 at Tropicana Field and 21 in a row — and 39 of their next 43 — against nondivision opponents.

"We can't take any team lightly; we're in the big leagues, we know that," Carlos Peña said. "But we also know how tough the AL East is. It's tough. We know that. We can't underestimate that ever.

"I'm not saying we're satisfied where we're at, because that would not be true. But we feel good about where we're going. That was a good way to end a road trip. It kind of sets good momentum going in the right direction. And then we just have to keep playing our game, so things should keep on improving gradually."

Maddon admitted it was "the strange part about it" but said they were disappointed to finish the tough trip only 4-3 because they had a chance to win more.

"To win under these circumstances and come out with a winning record is pretty good in spite of the fact that we're still not playing our best baseball," he said.

They looked fine much of the night Wednesday, turning a 2-2 tie into a 4-2 lead then expanding it to 8-2 despite leaving a load of runners in scoring position.

B.J. Upton had his first three-hit game. Peña was on base four times (and made a spectacular catch of a foul ball leaning, then falling over the dugout railing). Jason Bartlett hit his career-high-matching fifth homer. Even Dioner Navarro had a big hit.

Plus they got an improved effort from Jeff Niemann, who gave up two runs over five innings, though allowing eight hits and three walks. "He hung in there, and he made better pitches when he had to," Maddon said.

But just when it looked easy, with a six-run lead and three outs to go, Percival made it a mess. He allowed a leadoff double then homers to Brian Roberts and Felix Pie, the second back-to-back blasts in his career (and first since 1996). He gave up another double before Maddon reluctantly summoned J.P. Howell, who allowed an RBI single to bring the tying run to the plate, to finish it.

"I felt good," Percival said. "There was no excuse for it. I just was getting underneath the ball. … That's the strongest my arm's felt in two years. I was just throwing the ball down the middle."

This isn't the first time this season the Rays felt they were on the verge of a turnaround. This time they say they mean it.

"It will be nice to get back home and play some new teams," said Crawford, "and just see what we can do from there."

Marc Topkin can be reached at topkin@sptimes.com.

Rays 8

Orioles 6

Tampa Bay Rays end road trip 4-3 after hanging on to beat Baltimore Orioles 8-6 05/13/09 [Last modified: Thursday, May 14, 2009 6:59am]
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