ST. PETERSBURG - The statement the Rays made through the first eight innings Monday night was rather emphatic.
They had played the better game, getting outstanding pitching from James Shields and their bullpen, cracking a couple of long home runs and showing off patience at the plate that allowed them to tack on a couple more runs. Troy Percival struck out Manny Ramirez to open the ninth and there was bedlam at Tropicana Field with a three-run lead in hand for the home team.
Then, the lesson began. The Red Sox already have learned it, many times over. Winning meaningful baseball games isn't easy, and the path the Rays traveled to record the last two outs and escape with a 5-4 victory was evidence of that.
By the time it was over, the Rays had lost their closer - perhaps only for the balance of the evening, perhaps longer - and gained another life experience on their way to becoming bona-fide contenders.
It started when Mike Lowell doubled and Kevin Youkilis singled off the glove of a diving Evan Longoria - who saved a run by making contact with the ball - to bring the tying run to the plate. Percival then induced a sky-high fly ball from Brandon Moss that would have been the second out if Tropicana Field's absence of sky hadn't come into play. The ball ricocheted off the B-ring catwalk as Gabe Gross looked on in right, allowing one run to score and putting runners on second and third.
Percival secured the second out on a sacrifice fly by Jason Varitek that scored Youkilis to make it 5-4, but the game took one final twist on Gross' throw to third in an unsuccessful attempt to keep Moss from moving up. As Percival moved to back up the base, his left leg collapsed on him once again.
Rays manager Joe Maddon knew as soon as he saw it that he'd have to find someone else to get the last out, and in truth Percival knew it, too, but that didn't stop the two old friends from sharing a heated exchange.
"I just needed to yell at somebody and he was there," Percival said. "I hate coming off the mound in the middle of the inning. It's just not something I've ever done, I don't like doing it and it's embarrassing, but Joe did the right thing. Fortunately, Joe knows me better than any coach can possibly know me and he saw it in my eyes that there wasn't any way."
J.P. Howell came in cold from the bullpen and Julio Lugo worked him over, but the former Rays shortstop eventually sent an arcing liner straight at his opposite number and Jason Bartlett squeezed it in both hands.
"Percy wanted that out and he deserved it, but it was the right decision, we all know," Howell said. "It was one of those things where all I thought about was, 'I want to get this for Percy,' because I know he really wanted that one. I wish it was his, really."
The Rays hope to have a better idea today about whether Percival might require another trip to the disabled list to help his balky left leg heal properly. The veteran said he didn't even want to think about it Monday night. He also said he apologized immediately to Maddon for the way he behaved on the mound, but it was no surprise Percival was so emotional. It was that kind of night at the Trop.
And even though it took a wild ninth inning to finish it off, most of the evening broke the Rays' way. It started immediately, as James Shields handled the first three Red Sox batters of the game on seven pitches and B.J. Upton punctuated that statement by smashing Justin Masterson's first pitch of the game 407 feet over the center-field wall for a leadoff homer in the bottom of the first.
The Rays gave off an unmistakably different vibe than they had during their just-completed road trip.
"I really liked the way we came out tonight," Maddon said. "I thought we were totally composed throughout the game."
Nothing but a single game was won Monday, but it was another brick in what has become an awfully solid foundation for the Rays.
The Rays and Red Sox are tied with 50 wins apiece, but Monday night's victory extended Tampa Bay's division lead: TeamWLPctGBTampa Bay5032.610-Boston5035.5881 1/2