ST. PETERSBURG — Manager Joe Maddon told his team in the spring that one of the big keys to getting back to the playoffs would be playing better late in games.
Saturday night's 9-3 win over the Blue Jays was a perfect illustration of what can happen if they do just that.
The bullpen got some huge outs, holding on just long enough for the Rays to break out for a seven-run eighth-inning rally that turned a one-run deficit into a momentum-building win in front of a Summer Concert Series crowd of 23,870.
"There's no question that, with our lineup, we're not out of any game until the final out," reliever Dan Wheeler said. "That's a big inning for us as a group. … You're not really expecting to put seven runs on them, but that's the kind of explosion we have as an offense."
Right-hander Jeff Niemann gave the Rays a chance with another strong start, striking out eight and walking just one over 62/3 innings; he gave up three runs on two homers, both on 3-and-2 counts.
"As far as stuffwise, that was the best I felt all year," Niemann said. "They hit two decent pitches out."
The bullpen helped bail Niemann out in the seventh, with lefty Randy Choate striking out Fred Lewis with the bases loaded to keep the Rays within a run.
"That," Maddon said, "was a big play."
The Rays (13-5) scuffled against Jays lefty Ricky Romero, even in the seventh, when they advanced the tying run to third with no outs before stranding John Jaso. Jaso, who had a big day with a two-run homer (the first of his career) in the fifth and a huge block in the eighth on a Wheeler pitch in the dirt, played a role in the wild eighth-inning rally against the Toronto bullpen.
The hitters did it all, showing patience (three walks) and craftiness (Willy Aybar's surprising bunt single down the third-base line). They delivered clutch hits, with B.J. Upton ending a great at-bat with the tying RBI single. Reid Brignac put the Rays up for good with a bases-loaded walk, and Jaso knocked another in by getting hit with a pitch before two-run singles by Jason Bartlett and Ben Zobrist put the game out of reach.
"We feed off each other every day," Brignac said. "And when (Evan Longoria) got the hit to start us off and (Carlos Peña) walked, and then from that it just rolled on and on."
Said Jays manager Cito Gaston: "Bullpen just couldn't get an out tonight."
The Rays even ended the game in style, with Longoria making a diving stop at third to start the ninth and Carl Crawford a spectacular diving catch in left-center for the final out.
"That speaks volumes," Maddon said. "That's what I've been talking about, the whole group from Day 1; the focus has been outstanding, the effort has been outstanding. You talk about finishing games well, dominating late, whether it was relief pitching, offense and defense."
Joe Smith can be reached at email@example.com.