ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — It was a September game in late July in Joe Maddon’s estimation, and the Rays manager handled it as such. And just like everything else recently, it worked out.
Tampa Bay kept inching closer to the pennant race and Boston keep backsliding on Saturday as the Rays got just enough offense and timely pitching for a 3-0 win at Tropicana Field.
“We’ve just been playing good baseball,” Maddon said. “We have to play good baseball to make this work. … It’s a total team process right now.”
Right-hander Grant Balfour contained potential rallies in the sixth and seventh innings to post his first win in what has often been a frustrating season for the former closer. The right-hander (1-3) allowed one hit with a strikeout in 1 1/3 innings.
The key moment came the fifth inning.
Rays starter Jeremy Hellickson allowed two runs, five hits and two walks with five strikeouts in 4 2/3 innings. The right-hander was a strike away from qualifying for the win, leading 2-0 in the fifth. But a two-out single by second baseman Dustin Pedroia prompted Maddon to summon left-hander Jeff Beliveau, who retired designated hitter David Ortiz to end the inning. Ortiz had doubled off Hellickson in the first inning.
“Ortiz has a tremendous flair for the dramatic, and I didn’t want to see that,” Maddon said.
The Rays weren’t dramatic, but grindingly consistent again in finding new sources for wins. In capturing its ninth consecutive victory, Tampa Bay (51-53) pulled within six games of American League East-leading Baltimore and 3 one-half games of the second wild card.
Tampa Bay has not been as close to either since mid-May. The Rays’ streak is second only in club history to a 12-game run in 2004.
Boston (47-57) lost its fifth in a row after a five-game win streak.
“Each and every night is a big win, especially against a team in the division,” Balfour said. “We see ourselves climbing the ladder. We’re not there yet.”
Rays designated hitter Matt Joyce, right fielder Kevin Kiermaier and shortstop Yunel Escobar each had two hits. Second baseman Ben Zobrist hit his eighth homer of the season in the seventh inning off Red Sox starter John Lackey (11-7) for the final margin.
Lackey allowed three runs (two earned), eight hits and four walks with four strikeouts.
Since losing 14 of 15 games and falling 18 games below .500 on June 10, the Rays own the majors’ best record at 27-11.
Jake McGee pitched a spotless ninth for his 11th save of the season. Four Rays relievers combined to allow two hits and a walk.
Tampa Bay took a 1-0 lead with an unearned run in the first inning. Center fielder Desmond Jennings led off with a bunt and hustled his way to third as catcher Christian Vazquez overthrew first baseman Mike Napoli. Zobrist walked before Joyce grounded a single to right for a 1-0 lead, but Lackey retired the next three batters to snuff the threat.
“Kind of had crazy plays throughout the game, put me in the stretch early,” Lackey said. “Honestly, I felt pretty good the whole way. You don’t want to be in the stretch the third pitch of the game, for sure, but things happen. We managed the inning, only gave up one run and gave the guys a chance.”
Boston ran itself out of a scoring opportunity in the third inning when right fielder Brock Holt was thrown out at home plate on an odd 4-3-2 double play. Holt, who had led off with a walk and advanced on a groundout, attempted to score from second as Ortiz grounded out to right field against an exaggerated shift.
Kiermaier’s run-scoring single upped the lead to 2-0 in the fourth inning. Escobar, who led off with a single and moved up on a sacrifice bunt, scored on the rookie’s 25th RBI of the season.
But he nearly didn’t get the chance. Vazquez appeared to have picked Escobar off second base with one out, but manager John Farrell elected not to challenge the call and Kiermaier flared a single to center on the next pitch.
“It wasn’t conclusive,” Farrell said. “Where we were at the time of the game, given our history with what we’ve used the system for, when it’s not conclusive, we’re not going to risk using the one challenge we have at that moment.”