ST. PETERSBURG — There is only one rule Joe Maddon enforces among the Rays position players: that they run hard to first base. And after catching 163 pitches over 11 innings and more than 3½ hours Monday night, John Jaso had a reason for doing exactly that.
"Because I wanted to win," Jaso said. "I didn't want to lose."
And because he did, the Rays won, again, 4-3 over the Indians in 11. They're still not scoring a lot and still not hitting enough, but they continue to find a way, rallying late to tie and later to win for the third straight game, improving their major-league-best record to 27-11 with dominating relief work and the first walkoff bunt in franchise history.
"It's going to come in regard to just clumps of runs, but right now there's nothing to complain about," manager Joe Maddon said. "You win games like this, it really does build even more character among the group. The belief that you can win late is a very good belief to have."
The Rays had a chance to do so, before a larger-than-expected crowd of 18,879, because of another outstanding performance by their bullpen in relief of an admittedly off — physically and mentally — starter Jeff Niemann.
Six relievers combined for the final 15 outs, allowing just one hit and striking out 10. Most impressive were the contributions by two that don't normally get involved in critical situations: Joaquin Benoit striking out all five he faced (What was working? "They were swinging and missing," he deadpanned) and Andy Sonnanstine working a 1-2-3 11th for his first win since June 25.
That put them in position to win, and they took full advantage.
Jaso got them started, busting down the line on a slow grounder to shortstop and, if not actually safe, at least being called safe. Showing savvy beyond his rookie status, Jaso danced around the question of whether he beat the throw:
"I mean it was, whatever, I was safe so, you know, that was the call."
Cleveland manager Manny Acta didn't think there was any question about first-base umpire Mike Winters' call.
"He had the runner beating the throw, which I thought was absurd," Acta said. "I hate to see the human element be taken out of the game, but I see why so many people ask about instant replay for everything because we played so hard and that guy had no business being on base."
Next was a perfectly executed hit-and-run single by Gabe Kapler, sending Jaso to third. And then Jason Bartlett, who was supposed to have the night off — but not "off-off," as Maddon differentiates for times of game-winning need — took a strike (with the bunt on), then a ball (with the bunt off), then got the bunt down, Jaso sliding across the plate head first.
"It's a good sign, it feels like '08 a lot with the late-inning victories but we have to get the offense going," Bartlett said.
But it was Jaso running hard to first that made it all possible.
"I wasn't having a good day at the plate, so when that happens I try and pick it up other places," Jaso said. "Right there it was hustling down to first base and seeing if something good would come of it. And luckily it paid off."
Said Maddon: "It didn't surprise me in the least."
Marc Topkin can be reached at email@example.com.