CLEVELAND — Manager Joe Maddon still feels that All-Star closer Rafael Soriano is as good a team MVP candidate as the Rays have.
But RHP Joaquin Benoit is not far behind.
"Without what Joaquin has done, if there's almost a second MVP or co-MVP, he's right there," Maddon said.
Benoit, who turns 33 today, has been one of the Rays' most pleasant surprises, going from signing as a minor-league free agent in spring training to becoming one of the best relievers in the majors. There he was again Sunday, retiring two of the Indians' best hitters, Shin-Soo Choo and Carlos Santana, with the tying run on second base (and credit Reid Brignac with a huge assist on a diving stop to retire Santana) in the seventh.
"That was a really critical moment of the game, so I wanted Benoit in that moment," Maddon said. "And he did a great job once again."
Benoit has allowed three runs in 34 appearances, lowering his AL relief-leading ERA to 0.81, and has allowed just one of his 17 inherited runners to score.
"What he's doing right now is definitely above and beyond," Maddon said. "We anticipated he'd be able to help us, but to this extent? Come on, nobody knew that."
Benoit, who missed the 2009 season due to right shoulder surgery, is having a career season, holding lefties and righties to similarly low numbers.
Maddon said they've tried to make sure Benoit is well-rested, considering he's coming off surgery. But Benoit's efficiency and effectiveness have made him available on back-to-back days.
"I'm attacking the strike zone better, am more consistent around the strike zone and getting ahead of hitters quicker," Benoit said.
Benoit's ability to retire left- and right-handers has helped the bullpen absorb the blow of losing LHP J.P. Howell for the season. And while the Rays don't need a closer, thanks to Soriano, Benoit feels he has the right mentality if needed in the future.
"What he's doing right now definitely indicates he's capable of holding down that job," Maddon said.
HOME COOKIN': As the Rays open their longest homestand of the season today, 11 games in 11 days, they feel this would be the perfect time to return to their good form at Tropicana Field, where they're just 26-20.
"Getting to look more like ourselves at home would be great," Maddon said. "I thought our last (6-1) homestand prior to the All-Star break was very good, and that's what we've got to do on a more consistent basis."
BIG HOLE: RHP Matt Garza has never beaten the Tigers in six career starts, but the lineup he'll face tonight packs less punch than usual. Slugger Magglio Ordonez is out 6-8 weeks with a fractured ankle sustained Saturday, and with Carlos Guillen and Brandon Inge also out, that means less protection around All-Star 1B Miguel Cabrera, who may not get many good pitches this series.
"He's vying for a Triple Crown, so I'm going to try to put up a roadblock," Garza said. "Don't try to just get him out all the time, just contain him. With Maggs going down, there's less protection for him, so it's like … (Cabrera) might be taking that base."
NO WORRIES: Though the Rays recorded several outs on the basepaths Sunday, including LF Carl Crawford and 3B Evan Longoria getting picked off in the eighth, Maddon pointed out that they were able to win despite getting outhit because "we're not afraid to take chances."
"I'd never get on our guys for any 'perceived' mistakes on the bases," Maddon said. "The only mistake we can make from here are really mental mistakes. Aggressiveness, I have no problem with whatsoever."
MINOR MATTERS: Rocco Baldelli went 1-for-3 with a two-run single as DH for Class A Charlotte in a doubleheader nightcap at Clearwater.