ST. PETERSBURG — Josh Fleming did his part again Friday, showing poise and determination well beyond a pitcher making his third big-league start in getting the Rays through five innings with a lead.
Then Michael Perez did his thing, coming up with the biggest hit of the night, a three-run double that left him with the unusual stat line for the season: nine hits and 10 RBIs.
But the Rays still needed Nick Anderson to finish the job.
That wasn’t the easiest assignment in his first outing in more than two weeks after a stint on the injured list due to a forearm issue. And it didn’t go as smoothly as usual, with a leadoff walk and an error behind him.
But Anderson, eventually, did it, closing out a tense 5-4 victory over the Marlins that improved the Rays’ American League-best record to 27-12 and maintained a comfortable East Division lead, 5½ games over the Blue Jays and either 4½ or 5½ over the Yankees, who were playing the second game of a doubleheader at Baltimore.
“A 5-4 ballgame, not the easiest, ‘Here you go, come get ’em,’” manager Kevin Cash said. “But that just shows how much confidence that we have and trust in Nick. When he’s right, he’s as good as anybody.”
It would be hard to be better, as through 12 appearances, Anderson has not allowed an earned run. The save was his fourth, though he says he’s not counting. The leadoff walk to Miguel Rojas was only his second of the 38 batters he has faced.
“That’s all right,” Anderson cracked. “I’ll still sleep tonight.”
An error by Rays shortstop Willy Adames after the walk on a ground ball that should have led to at least one out increased the degree of difficulty, with runners now on first and second. Anderson then got a ground ball down the third-base line that Joey Wendle stabbed for a force out, an infield fly popup for the second out, and Jon Berti looking at a typically nasty 95 mph fastball to end it.
Anderson, facing his former Marlins mates, said he didn’t mind the high-stress return.
“Get in, get back in the saddle, knock the rust off,” he said. “I just had to kind of stick with how I usually treat it, not really worry about situation. Honestly, just be competitive, take a deep breath, try not to really worry about the situation.”
The Rays certainly are glad he’s back. Though they navigated his absence well amid a slew of other injuries that sidelined seven members of the projected opening-day bullpen, Anderson is the reliever they typically turn to in the highest leverage situations. Having him as the anchor now allows the Rays to again use their other relievers in different, and potentially more favorable, matchups. On Friday it was Ryan Thompson in the sixth, Pete Fairbanks in the seventh and Diego Castillo in the eighth.
“Nick’s pretty special,” Cash said. “Nick’s the same guy. You can’t ever tell with him‚ what he’s thinking on the mound, emotionally, anything like that. He just stays so level. We’re fortunate to have him.”
Fleming has been pretty important, too. The 24-year-old was unexpectedly summoned to the team after injuries also left the rotation short, and all he has done is win his first three starts. Only two other Rays have done that in their first three big-league games, Jeremy Hellickson and Jake Faria.
Fleming had allowed only a pair of solo homers Friday. A four-run fourth-inning rally by the Rays gave him a 5-2 lead going to the fifth.
The rookie had impressed the Rays plenty in his first starts with what he did and how he did it, sharp pitches, smart thinking and surprising poise. He showed them something else Friday, the grit and determination to get through a tough situation.
He got two quick outs in the fifth, on four pitches, but went 3-0 on No. 8 hitter Jorge Alfaro and allowed a single, then another single to Lewis Brinson.
Berti drilled a ball to the right of center that Kevin Kiermaier raced for and tried to make what would have been a spectacular leaping catch that would’ve been all over the highlight shows. But the Rays centerfielder just missed, the ball ticking off the top of his glove for a two-run double.
An infield single by Sterling Marte put the tying run on third, but Fleming didn’t flinch, getting Garrett Cooper to ground out to end the threat.
“That would have been an incredible play by KK out there,” Fleming said. “But being able to get out of it was huge for me.”
Perez has shown somewhat of a knack for coming through when it matters, knocking in the deciding run for the third time this season in somewhat limited opportunity, 9-for-52 (.173 overall), with five game-tying or go-ahead RBIs.
He got his chance in the fourth against the Marlins when the Rays loaded the bases on a leadoff single by Wendle, an Austin Meadows walk and a one-out single by Yoshi Tsutsugo, who had homered earlier. Kiermaier drew a walk on a full count to force in a run, then Perez lashed a ball to the left-centerfield gap.
“I like to hit with runners on base,” he said, via team translator Manny Navarro. “The more chances I have of doing that, the better. I like to be calm, and that’s the way I approach those at-bats.”
On Friday, it was a team effort.