ST. PETERSBURG — Much of the talk before Saturday's game revolved around the Rays designated hitter on his way out (Pat Burrell) and the one on his way in (Hank Blalock).
But it was the one who stayed — and always seems to stay ready for key moments (Willy Aybar) — who stole the show.
Aybar hit a walkoff solo home run in the ninth inning to lift the Rays to a come-from-behind 3-2 victory over the Mariners, pumping up a crowd of 23,627 at Tropicana Field.
"I'm just as confident in (Aybar) as anybody in a big situation," third baseman Evan Longoria said.
Aybar, a switch-hitter, has seen his playing time increase against left-handers because of Burrell's struggles, and he will get plenty more chances to start in a platoon with Blalock. His homer came on a 3-and-2 fastball from Mariners righty Jesus Colome, a former Ray whom Aybar said he faced many times in winter ball.
"I've always felt like I've been part of the team," Aybar said through an interpreter. "But now that there's an opportunity, I'm going to make sure I take full advantage of it."
The Rays (25-11) maintained the majors' best record and held their one-game lead over the Yankees in the American League East. More impressive was how they did it: Their offense still scuffling (six hits), the Rays got great pitching and defense, and manufactured runs.
"That's how you win championships," manager Joe Maddon said. "You've got to win the 3-2, 2-1, 4-3 games. You've got to outpitch them, you've got to out-defense them certain nights."
Starter James Shields had another solid outing, giving up two runs over eight innings and striking out 10. "Tremendous performance on his part," Maddon said. "Shieldsy was the biggest part of that game for us."
But Mariners left-hander Jason Vargas was also impressive, carrying a no-hitter through four innings. With the perfect game by the A's Dallas Braden against the Rays last week still fresh in their minds, Longoria's single in the fifth was much-needed relief.
"Sitting in the dugout, looking at it, you're kind of thinking, 'This is not going to happen twice in one year,' '' centerfielder B.J. Upton said.
Upton, who entered the game in a 4-for-44 skid, sparked the Rays' tying rally in the eighth. He singled up the middle off Vargas' foot, then stole second, moving to third on a Dioner Navarro single.
When right-hander Brandon League relieved Vargas, Reid Brignac pinch-hit for Gabe Kapler and delivered an RBI single in a great eight-pitch at-bat, making it 2-1. For Brignac, it was his fourth hit (4-for-7) and fifth RBI as a pinch-hitter, both AL bests.
Said Longoria: "That was probably, other than Willy's homer, the best at-bat of the game."
The decision of the game came after Jason Bartlett's sacrifice bunt down the third-base line moved runners to second and third, and Carl Crawford was intentionally walked.
With one out and Longoria on deck, Ben Zobrist lofted a fly ball to shallow left, and third-base coach Tom Foley made an aggressive call by sending pinch-runner Sean Rodriguez home. Rodriguez beat Michael Saunders' throw with a head-first slide.
Foley said he noticed Saunders caught the ball with very little momentum, so he had to gather himself and throw.
"We were taking a shot there anyway," Foley said. "It was deep enough to where, hey, if (Saunders) makes a great throw, (Rodriguez is) out, but if not, we're going to tie the game up."