ST. PETERSBURG - Among the attributes the 2008 Rays possess that their forerunners lacked, perhaps the most important when it comes to keeping an ugly game from deteriorating into an uh-oh week, is their starting pitching.
All five of their starters have turned in at least one shutdown performance this season, and some many more than that. When it comes to snapping a losing skid or simply recovering from one of those bad days that pop up throughout the six-month season, nothing is as effective as a strong outing by the starting pitcher.
The Rays got another one Wednesday afternoon, with Matt Garza deftly handling a Rangers lineup that had posted a dozen runs the previous evening for an outing Rays manager Joe Maddon called his best yet. Add in some timely hitting (and walks) and Tampa Bay emerged with a 5-3 victory.
The home clubhouse was somewhat subdued afterward, a reflection of the uncertainty about closer Troy Percival's status after he left the game with a hamstring problem two outs into the ninth. The Rays will have to wait and see how their latest injury affects them, but they could take solace in the way Garza led them back into the win column.
"I don't want to let these guys down out there," Garza said. "I want to be that guy to come pick it up and let's go."
Garza's eight innings established a career high, and his 10 strikeouts were one off his best. He retired the first nine and the last nine batters he faced, running into trouble only in the fourth when Texas parlayed a leadoff walk to Ian Kinsler and subsequent Michael Young double into a pair of runs as Milton Bradley singled them home.
Coming off 71/3 innings of shutout ball against the Orioles in his previous start, Garza kept on rolling with a more effective slider - "I'd been searching for it for a while," he said - and looked more confident than in earlier outings.
"We know he's got it and he came out and showed it today," said center fielder B.J. Upton.
The Rays hadn't seen Garza strike hitters out at anywhere near that rate since he came from Minnesota. The right-hander had fanned only 13 batters total in his first seven starts with Tampa Bay, with a single-game high of four his last time out.
Garza didn't sound satisfied, mentioning more than once that he sees himself as "just building and building" with each start he makes.
"He really stands out to me as the kind of a guy that when he gets his confidence rolling and really believes that what he's got going on is good, heads-up," said Maddon. "I think now he's starting to settle in, and against a good-hitting team, after a big night, to pitch that well, to me, is a good sign. I think as his confidence grows you can see him pitching like that more often."
That can't help but be a good thing for the Rays, who have now won 15 of their last 20 games overall (posting a collective 3.10 ERA along the way) and captured nine of their last 11 series.
"We talk about winning the series," Maddon said. "We want to win the series, and we won another series against a team that's been playing very well, which is always a good benchmark or indicator for us."
Speaking of positive indicators, Maddon found another in the way the Rays rallied for four runs in the fifth inning to take control of the game. Tampa Bay drew five walks (one of them intentional) from starter Kason Gabbard and reliever Frank Francisco in that inning, including free passes with the bases loaded to Carlos Pena and Cliff Floyd that drove in runs.
With the offense coming around to join the pitching and defense, the Rays feel good about the way they're playing as the AL Central-leading White Sox roll back into town for four games beginning tonight.
Chicago's greatest strength is its starting rotation, which features four pitchers sporting sub-4.00 ERAs. Then again, so does Tampa Bay's.