Only hours after the question was posed about the Rays' near-record shutout drought, right-hander Edwin Jackson rendered it moot. The 23-year-old right-hander dominated Texas with his finest performance as a pro, a four-hit, 3-0 victory that marked the first shutout and complete game of his career.
Jackson (3-11) walked one, struck out eight, and still was hitting 99 mph on the radar gun in the ninth inning as he finished a tenacious 110-pitch outing, winning for just the second time in his last eight starts.
"I just couldn't get him out of that game," Maddon said. "He still had a lot left in the tank [in the ninth], and I like it when a guy smells it like that."
The aroma of a shutout was a foreign scent to Rays pitchers. They already had set a club record for going 117 games into the season without one, and their overall shutout drought had reached 119 games. They hadn't blanked an opponent since last Sept. 27, an 11-0 victory in Boston.
The Rays' franchise record for a drought between shutouts is 125 games (Aug. 23, 2004-July 14, 2005), a mark that seemed in jeopardy of falling later this week. But on Saturday, Jackson was in command from the outset, setting a strong tone by retiring the first 10 hitters he faced.
Texas only moved one runner past second base, but Jackson stranded Brad Wilkerson at third with a called strikeout of Jason Botts to end the fourth.
"He was tough," said Rangers shortstop Michael Young, who grounded into a double play to end the game. "He got ahead in the count to a lot of hitters. He had everything going. He was throwing hard and kept his pitch count low."
The performance gave some measure of vindication both to Jackson and his manager. Maddon has been a staunch defender of Jackson's potential, and he thought the pitcher was close to turning a corner after his previous two starts. Jackson lost a 2-0 decision to Toronto on July 31 and got a no-decision in a 6-4 loss to Detroit last Monday after the bullpen blew his two-run lead. Jackson gave up only two earned runs in those previous 12 innings.
"He's coming off some good starts against some good teams," Maddon said, "and then to have a game like tonight's ... I like to talk about 'growth moments' that players sometimes experience. And I really believe a performance like that can elevate his game.
"That's what we look for in the future of E.J. Not that he's going to throw a shutout every time, but that he can have that kind of quality stuff over the course of a game. This is what we all talk about, the potential of this young man."
Jackson didn't portray much glee over the outing, preferring to stay on something of an even keel. After all, it wasn't long ago that he went into the All-Star break with a 1-9 record, 7.23 ERA and serious questions about whether he'd return as a starter, a reliever, ticketed back to the Minors, or worse. But since the break, he is 2-2 with a 2.97 ERA.
"It definitely feels good," he said. "I could've been back in the 'pen, whatever. But when I didn't go to the pen starting the second half, I said, 'I'm not going to give them the chance to put me in the 'pen anymore.'
"It felt pretty good. My first time with a complete game and a shutout. But I give my defense all the credit. They made a lot of good plays behind me. And I know I can't afford to get too comfortable. I have to play hard this last month and a half, then maybe I can look back and laugh. Right now, it's still all business."
The Rays handed Jackson an early 2-0 lead when Delmon Young doubled home Carl Crawford in the first and Greg Norton doubled to score Josh Wilson in the second. A two-out RBI single by Brendan Harris in the sixth helped finish off Rangers left-hander John Rheinecker (1-1).
The rest was all Jackson, who completely shackled the league's seventh-ranked offensive club. He walked Wilkerson with one out in the ninth, and Maddon said a second baserunner would have forced him to summon reliever Al Reyes. But Jackson induced the double-play grounder from Young to end the game still on the mound.
"We made a few plays behind him, but it was all on him today," Crawford said. "To shut out this team in Texas, where the ball flies, should definitely help his confidence."