ARLINGTON, Texas — The Rays knew life without injured closer Troy Percival wouldn't be easy. Saturday, they felt how uncomfortable it could be on another hot Texas night. And how rewarding to get the job done without him.
Dan Wheeler got the final four outs, pitching into and out of a bases-loaded jam in the ninth inning, as the Rays hung on for a 5-4 victory over the Rangers.
"It's a good feeling to close the door," Wheeler said. "With (Percival), the game is one inning less. He's huge to have down there. But we have to pick up the slack, and we have some good guys to go out there and do that."
He wasn't alone as the Rays improved to 37-25, continuing their bounce back from the Boston bashing, and remained a half-game behind the Red Sox.
J.P. Howell worked two innings in relief of Andy Sonnanstine for his major-league-reliever-high fifth win, and Trever Miller did most of the work in the eighth. Plus, it was Willy Aybar's turn on the get-the-big-hit list, and Jason Bartlett (on the bases and in the field) and Shawn Riggans (behind the plate) made heads-up plays.
But, even with a two-run lead, it came down to Wheeler. It was just the second save situation the Rays have had in the nine games Percival has missed (with four more to go), and both times they turned the job into an adventure.
Wheeler loaded the bases with one out by allowing on a single (to Ramon Vazquez), a double (to Ian Kinsler, that fell between B.J. Upton and Gabe Gross in right-center) and a walk (to Chris Shelton, on a questionably checked swing).
Then all he had to do was face former Rays prospect Josh Hamilton, who leads the majors in RBIs and the AL in homers, and Milton Bradley, the AL's top hitter.
"A very difficult moment," manager Joe Maddon said.
Wheeler got Hamilton (hitting .150 against the Rays, and .329 against everyone else) to ground to short, trading a run for a forceout at second. Then Bradley, hitting .338, grounded a ball up the middle that Wheeler deflected just enough for second baseman Akinori Iwamura to grab and turn into the final out.
It was Wheeler's second save in two chances this season, though he had converted only 25 of 39 (64 percent) prior chances.
"I try to treat the ninth inning as the eighth or the seventh or whatever, but there's something about the ninth," Wheeler said. "You have to go out there and make a pitch. I keep saying that, but that's the simplest term I can say. You just have to go knock all the rest of that stuff out of your head."
The Rays got to the ninth with the lead for a variety of reasons. Sonnanstine, though weakened from a virus, threw five solid innings. Gross hit a two-run homer. Aybar, in another magic Maddon move, was a surprise starter against a right-hander, and delivered the key hit, a two-run double in the eighth to make it 4-2.
After Texas scored a run in the bottom of the eighth, Bartlett provided what proved to be the decisive run in the ninth — singling, stealing second and third, and scoring on a wild pitch. Riggans blocked several Wheeler pitches to keep runners from advancing.
"A big thing for me is to watch these guys battle for eight innings to put ourselves in a position to win," Wheeler said. "The last thing you want as a reliever is to go out and give it up."