TORONTO — There was a lot that seemed to be going wrong for the Rays on Saturday afternoon.
B.J. Upton's long drive down the leftfield line was ruled, and instant replay confirmed, foul rather than a home run. Only the length of Sean Rodriguez's fingers kept the Rays from hitting into a second triple play in two weeks. Closer Kyle Farnsworth wasn't available due to (previously undisclosed) elbow tenderness, and first baseman Casey Kotchman was too ill to start. Three runners were thrown out at third base and a fourth at second. Starter Jeff Niemann failed — okay, relatively, by their historic streak standards — to get through seven innings. Kelly Shoppach made one of those oh-no mistakes, dropping a popup to start the ninth. And a four-run seventh-inning lead was perilously close to being frittered away.
But by the end, through all the odd circumstances, everything turned out all right in a 6-5 victory over the Jays.
"Just find a way to win," Rodriguez said. "That's all that matters. Just find a way. Every game is a must-win at this point."
The Rays have, quietly, been stacking them up, their 19-9 mark since July 28 the best in the American League. And at 72-59, they moved to within seven games of the Irene-idled Yankees, the closest they have been to the AL wild-card lead in a month.
"I keep saying we're very much in this race right now," Upton said. "We've just got to continue to try to win series. That's all we can ask of ourselves. And hopefully, those guys hit a little rut and we can gain some ground on them."
After a win such as Saturday's, it seemed a little easier for the Rays to believe it still could be a September to remember.
"Everybody out there does and so do I," manager Joe Maddon said. "We can still whittle this down going into September. There's recent history to indicate that it's possible. And part of the reason why I believe it is because we play these other guys (the Yankees and Red Sox) so often, and these other guys play each other so often.
"Therein lies the potential for it to get done. We've just got to take care of our own house and win our games, and then you've got to rely on somebody else."
Saturday, they were definitely all that.
When Upton's "first" homer was denied and he was hit by a pitch when play resumed, he stayed focused and stepped up in his next at-bat and hit a two-out three-run blast — off Pinellas Park's Jesse Litsch — in the seventh that proved to be the difference in the game.
"He's always been that guy," Maddon said. "He might get frustrated, but he's not the cat that tags it around with him and shows it. He doesn't make excuses about it. He just goes and keeps playing."
After Shoppach almost impossibly bunted into what would have been a pitcher-to-third-to-first-to-third triple play — had Rodriguez not hung onto third after sliding in head first — Elliot Johnson laced an RBI single that put the Rays ahead to stay.
With Niemann, in Maddon's words "not great but good," lasting only 61/3 innings — the first Rays starter in 12 games not to go at least seven — the bullpen was responsible for eight outs. And Joel Peralta stepped in coolly and calmly for Farnsworth to get the final three — actually four, if you consider Shoppach's dropped popup — for his second save of the season.
Shoppach joked that Peralta and Johnson were his favorite players of the day for covering for his mistakes.
But seriously, he said, the day turned out to be a prime example of why — with some obvious deficiencies such as five starting players hitting under .225 — they can win the way they do.
"That's kind of how we play," Shoppach said. "I was looking up at the scoreboard and that's a pretty fierce lineup if you look at those averages that we're rolling out there.
"But still we play pretty good team offense, and we hold it together and pick one another up in certain times and situations. … We play as a team."
Marc Topkin can be reached at [email protected]mes.com.