The Trop rocked again Tuesday night, another pretty-full house making all kinds of noise as the Rays padded their division lead over the Red Sox in another gripping affair.
For the second consecutive night, though, the home clubhouse at Tropicana Field was calm, quiet, businesslike. A 3-1 victory driven by stellar pitching from Matt Garza, which is no longer a revelation, and Grant Balfour, who still is, simply because of unfamiliarity, was processed as if nothing out of the ordinary had occurred.
"It's a big win, but at the same time I think everybody understands that we're not even at the All-Star break yet," Evan Longoria said. "There's a long road ahead of us. But for us to seal two out of three in this series, with all the hype coming in and expectations and stuff, it's pretty rewarding at this point for us to know that we took the series and now we've got a chance to sweep."
The Rays' AL East lead stands at 21/2 games entering tonight's finale, with respective aces Scott Kazmir of Tampa Bay and Daisuke Matsuzaka set to square off. The Rays have never held a division edge that large, and they now have guaranteed themselves first place heading into Fourth of July weekend.
And to walk into the Rays' clubhouse, you'd think it was the most natural thing in the world. Perhaps that confidence has been bred of repetition, particularly from a starting pitching standpoint. Garza continued to build on the foundation he has established since his blowup in Texas last month by handling the Boston lineup with relative ease for seven innings.
The right-hander scattered five hits, didn't walk a batter and allowed a lone unearned run in the fourth. It wasn't even a case of the Red Sox pounding out a couple of hits to capitalize on an error. Jacoby Ellsbury hustled his way there by dropping down a bunt single and flying around to third when catcher Dioner Navarro fired wildly down the right-field line. Ellsbury then scored on J.D. Drew's sacrifice fly.
The only real danger point for Garza besides that came in the seventh, after a two-out single by Brandon Moss. Alex Cora was at the plate, and he appeared to have Boston's first extra-base hit on his hands when he rifled a shot the other way past third base. But Longoria dived onto the foul line to grab it, then threw Cora out from his knees on a two-hopper into Carlos Pena's glove to end the inning.
"That was a good play," Longoria allowed. "That was one of my favorites."
Garza was more effusive.
"That was amazing," he said. "I was thinking sure double and then he sits down and launches it across the diamond and I was like, 'Oh, man!' I was so jacked after that. That was huge. That was amazing."
The same adjectives could be applied to Balfour's turn as the closer du jour. With Troy Percival headed to the disabled list and Dan Wheeler unavailable after pitching three straight days, the hard-throwing Balfour got the call in the eighth to bail out J.P. Howell. He walked his first batter, Manny Ramirez, to load the bases with two out and Mike Lowell up next.
He was about the last guy the Rays wanted to see at the plate in that situation. Lowell had driven in 18 runs in such situations this season, aided by a pair of grand slams. But the veteran third baseman couldn't square up Balfour's mid-90s heat and grounded routinely to Jason Bartlett to end the inning.
The Rays scored in the bottom of the first without a hit, as Carl Crawford walked, moved up on a groundout, moved up on an error by Cora and scored on a Tim Wakefield wild pitch.
In the fourth, Longoria singled back through the box on a ball Wakefield couldn't handle, then moved into scoring position on a wild pitch. With two out, Dioner Navarro - a switch-hitter batting right-handed against the righty Wakefield - poked an RBI single to right.
Navarro got the big hit again in the eighth, this time batting lefty as usual against reliever Manny Delcarmen. After falling behind in the count, Navarro pulled a 2-2 pitch into right to score Pena, who along with Cliff Floyd had drawn a walk from Craig Hansen.
"We got the hits when it counted," Navarro said, "and we got the win."