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Willy Aybar's pinch-hit sacrifice fly gives Tampa Bay Rays fourth straight win, beating Florida Marlins 3-2

ST. PETERSBURG — The Rays didn't need to hit the Marlins with their best shot.

A ninth-inning bloop single and stolen base by Jason Bartlett, a wild pitch and a sacrifice fly by Willy Aybar were enough for a thrilling 3-2 win that extended their perfect Saturday night concert series record to 11 straight over two seasons before '80s rocker Pat Benatar took the stage.

"Kind of a cool thing," manager Joe Maddon said. "We should have them more often."

The result was important, as the Rays moved to six games over .500 for the first time this season at 41-35 and moved into a tie for third place with Toronto, six games behind the Red Sox. Their 33-21 record since April 30 is the best in the AL (following their 8-14 start), and they've ensured a fifth straight winning homestand.

But the method may have been more integral to future success, as they followed Friday's eighth-inning winning rally with their third walkoff victory of the season. Overall, it was their 22nd come-from-behind win.

"We're starting to really believe in ourselves," Maddon said. "We're at the point now where we're expecting to win games late.

"When the game is getting to that seventh, eighth and ninth inning situation and it's close, I thought in the beginning of the year we were just almost hoping that we get out on top. Now we're expecting to get out on top.

"It's a good feeling to have. It's one of those intangible, non-describable … it's just a feeling. And you get it, and it permeates the group. And they all start believing. And if you don't get it done, it's almost like unbelievable that you didn't get it done. It's good; it's the way it needs to be. If you're going to play in October and go back to the World Series, you've got to have that belief."

Bartlett said that feeling starts more than anything with the pitching, that "as long as they keep us in it, we'll have a chance."

And that was exactly how it played out before a Tropicana Field crowd of 35,790.

Scott Kazmir made a successful return to the rotation, allowing two runs on four hits and only one walk in five innings, throwing 61 of 92 pitches for strikes and throwing harder. "It feels like I'm throwing through the catcher and not like I'm just trying to hit spots," he said. "I felt like I had a lot of life on my ball tonight."

And the bullpen continued its dominant run, as Chad Bradford (in his season debut), Grant Balfour, Dan Wheeler and J.P. Howell combined for four more zeroes.

Down 2-0 early, the Rays rallied to tie, Carlos Peña hitting his AL-leading 23rd homer in the fourth and B.J. Upton dropping a safety squeeze bunt in the fifth.

Bartlett, whose team-record 19-game hitting streak ended Friday, started the winning rally with a one-out blooper, swiped second on the first pitch, then went to third on Burke Badenhop's 2-and-2 wild pitch.

"I'm not feeling too good up there right now, so I'm just trying to battle, to get on any way I can," Bartlett said. "He left a slider up over the plate, and I did my usual, a little blooper."

Aybar, just trying to hit it out of the infield, delivered a sac fly to center for the first walkoff RBI of his career, and they all went home, or to the concert, happy.

"The atmosphere is positive; we're upbeat for every game," Aybar said, with coach Dave Martinez translating. "We're playing to win every day."

Marc Topkin can be reached at topkin@sptimes.com.

Willy Aybar's pinch-hit sacrifice fly gives Tampa Bay Rays fourth straight win, beating Florida Marlins 3-2 06/27/09 [Last modified: Sunday, June 28, 2009 12:17am]
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