ST. PETERSBURG — If it worked once, why not try it again?
The Rays, determined not to let Triple Crown threat Miguel Cabrera beat them, walked the Tigers slugger to load the bases for the second straight game Wednesday night. As in Tuesday's game, the unconventional move came in the seventh, with the Rays up by one with two outs. Like Tuesday, it advanced the go-ahead run to second base for left-handed hitting rookie Brennan Boesch.
And, like Tuesday, it worked perfectly.
Grant Balfour got Boesch to fly out to left, and the Rays held on for a 7-4 win in front of 16,209 at Tropicana Field. The Rays (62-38) have won five straight, and nine of their past 10 at home, keeping them two games behind the AL East-leading Yankees.
For manager Joe Maddon, deciding to take the bat out of Cabrera's hands was easy. Watching him rip a 436-foot solo homer in his previous at-bat reinforced it in a big way.
"I don't hit 3-woods that far," Maddon said. "I've never hit a 3-wood that far, and he did it so easily. So I thought, 'Let's do it again.' "
Balfour took over in the seventh for right-hander Jeff Niemann (9-3), who didn't have his best stuff but picked up the win. Balfour allowed a one-out double to Will Rhymes and walked Johnny Damon, admitting he pitched himself into that tough situation, then struck out Jeff Larish before bringing up Cabrera.
Balfour struck out Boesch on three pitches Tuesday. This time it took him four to get him to fly out.
"I've got to be honest, I wanted to face the guy," Balfour said of Cabrera. "I've had some success against him. … (You walk him), you have no margin for error. But at the same time, he's probably the best hitter in baseball."
The Rays offense, which had combined for two hits in Niemann's past two losses, backed him up this time. Everyone in the lineup, including Sean Rodriguez (who came in for injured centerfielder Ben Zobrist in the fourth), got a hit. There was Matt Joyce, who delivered for the third straight game against his former team, hitting a broken-bat RBI single in the first. There was Longoria, who broke out of a slump in a big way by picking up three hits, including a two-run homer in the eighth to give the Rays breathing room. And there was Reid Brignac, who sparked a two-run fourth with a leadoff double.
"The defense and offense really helped me out," Niemann said. "I threw all over the place."
Said Maddon: "He battled well, without his best stuff, without his best command, he got the win. That's a sign of a pretty good major-league pitcher."
The bullpen did the rest, with closer Rafael Soriano picking up his career-high 28th save. The Rays have a chance to sweep Detroit today before hosting the Yankees this weekend.
"This is a pivotal homestand for us," Longoria said. "The longest of the year, three tough teams to play against, three teams that are all playing for something also. We've done a great job up to this point; we've got to keep it going."
Joe Smith can be reached at email@example.com.