ST. PETERSBURG — Catcher John Jaso said the biggest key for the Rays in this final week of the regular season is to play to their full capabilities going into the playoffs and getting "our wheels turning at a good rate."
So it was fitting that Jaso's legs set the tone for Tampa Bay's 9-1 victory Saturday night over the last-place Mariners in front of 26,427 at Tropicana Field.
Jaso led off the Rays' four-run first inning by making the daring decision to go for a double on a hard-hit ball to rightfielder Ichiro Suzuki, who has one of the best arms in the American League. One batter later, Ben Zobrist repeated the feat with a double of his own, with manager Joe Maddon saying Jaso "gave him the courage to do so."
"Most players are not going to challenge Ichiro in that situation," Maddon said. "And he did, and he's safe. Everybody in the dugout was like, 'No! No! No!' And then they're like, 'Yeah! Yeah! Yeah!' It worked out great."
The Rays' continued aggressive play — as well as a strong seven-inning performance from right-hander Matt Garza — put them in position to clinch a playoff berth as early as tonight, with a win and a Red Sox loss to the Yankees.
Just last week, the Rays (93-61) were in danger of falling 2½ games behind the Yankees in the American League East. After four straight wins, they are 1½ ahead of New York with eight to play. The Rays also moved one game ahead of the Twins for best record in the AL and homefield advantage throughout the playoffs.
"We're playing as well as we have in a while," Maddon said. "You lose two games (in New York) and you come back and win two, and that showed a lot about the group in general, their character, their makeup, their want-to. Our guys proved that up there. Now you're seeing the residue of that."
The Rays also saw Garza's best performance in weeks as the right-hander picked up his 15th win by giving up just one run over seven.
"My main concern (Saturday) was going out and pumping the zone," Garza said. "I was able to put guys in counts I needed, I wanted."
In his previous 14 innings over three starts, Garza had given up a combined 20 runs.
"I did it (Saturday) in (92 pitches), so that's even better," he said. "I've been using 90 pitches through four. (Saturday) was a lot better. But I'm still not completely done. I'm just going to keep going."
That's what the Rays offense did Saturday, as Carl Crawford picked up three hits and B.J. Upton continued to look good at the plate with a triple and a homer. Matt Joyce hit a two-run homer but said it was Jaso's first-inning double that got them going.
"I just saw the opportunity and was glad I took it," Jaso said. "I'm sure (Ichiro) has thrown out plenty of guys doing the exact same thing. But I think Maddon will agree he wants us to keep doing these kinds of things."
Said Maddon: "There's a lot of energy about the whole group, on the field and in the clubhouse. We know what we're after. It's pretty fun to watch."
Joe Smith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
2 Combination of Rays wins and Red Sox losses needed to clinch a postseason berth.