The Rays claimed their ninth consecutive series win at Tropicana Field, and they have now won 12 of their last 16 series, with the four losses all coming on the road. Once again, the Rays matched their season-high and franchise-record high-water mark at 13 games over .500 (35-22), and they have won 24 of their last 28 games at home.
From the outset Wednesday night, the ball appeared to be bouncing the Rays' way.
After Akinori Iwamura drew a walk to lead off the Rays' first, Carl Crawford lofted a fly ball out to left field that Cubs left fielder Mark DeRosa dropped, allowing Iwamura to scoot around the bases for the Rays' first run against tough Cubs starter Carlos Zambrano.
The Cubs tried to get something going in the second, but Evan Longoria started a nifty 5-4-3 double play to end the inning. And when Chicago did get something going in the third and fifth innings, Sonnanstine put on a clinic in minimizing the damage.
He allowed two in the third, but struck out Derrek Lee on a slider with a man on second to end the inning. The Cubs then loaded the bases with no outs in the fifth and scored another run when Ryan Theriot grounded into a double play. True to form, Sonnanstine then struck out Lee again with a slider for the second out before retiring Aramis Ramirez on a flyout to right to end the inning.
"They had a chance to really get some runs," Rays manager Joe Maddon said. "I thought he had better location with his fastball, and it got him through.
"They started hitting his breaking ball later in the game. But I thought he was able to locate his fastball better tonight than he has the previous couple of outings. ... He gave us a chance to win, and he always seems to hold us together."
Sonnanstine referred to what he was doing as "damage control," and by effectively exercising it, he came away with his team-high eighth win of the season. Since Aug. 15, he is 13-5, which is better than any pitchers in baseball save for Arizona's Brandon Webb (17 wins) and New York's Chien-Ming Wang (14).
"I just did my best to get out of a couple of crucial situations and give our team a chance to win," Sonnanstine said. "... Just minimize as much as possible, try not to give up any runs, and if you do give up runs, try to keep it to a bare minimum."
The ball continued to bounce the Rays' way when Maddon got out the hook for Sonnanstine after he gave up a leadoff single to Matt Murton in the sixth. J.P. Howell came in to pitch to Geovany Soto, and the Rays left-hander appeared to have a horseshoe in his back pocket. Murton took off with the pitch, prompting Iwamura to cover at second -- exactly where Soto hit the ball. The Rays second baseman scooped up the ball, touched the base and threw to first to complete the double play.
|"It validates that we are a good team. When you go through these situations where you're attempting to grow, you think you're good, you think you're better, but then you have to go out there and actually show it."|
|-- Joe Maddon, on beating the Cubs|
Howell has been lucky and good this season. He pitched two innings of scoreless relief Wednesday to move the Rays into the eighth inning.
"The guy does everything," Rays closer Troy Percival said. "I can't say enough. Without him I don't know where we'd be. I've been around maybe one guy in my career that did what he does and that's Scot Shields early in his career."
Maddon offered that besides left-hander Scott Kazmir, Howell is right up there as far as team MVP goes this season.
"It's nice to have J.P. be this kind of bridge to the latter part of the game," Maddon said.
Dan Wheeler pitched an immaculate eighth inning before Percival entered in the ninth, surrendering a home run to Soto before nailing down his 17th save, and 341st of his career.
Twice beating the Cubs, who have the best record in baseball, is significant according to Maddon.
"Because for us it validates that we are a good team," Maddon said. "When you go through these situations where you're attempting to grow, you think you're good, you think you're better, but then you have to go out there and actually show it.
"It's not about coming close and coming up short and always saying, 'We just missed,' or whatever. You have to actually do it to get to that next level. And we need confidence to do that, and you gain confidence through games like tonight."
Bill Chastain is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.