Rays' bullpen preserves win at Trop

Rays' bullpen preserves win at Trop

ST. PETERSBURG -- Gary Sheffield may be long in the tooth where baseball years are concerned, but when the 39-year-old slugger steps into a batter's box and begins to wave his bat in the menacing fashion that is every timid pitcher's worst nightmare, everybody in the park knows he's still a threat.

"I'm afraid," Rays manager Joe Maddon said. "I saw him when he played in the Instructional League for the Milwaukee Brewers, whatever year that was, and he still looks the same.

"He's scary. He's got a wiggle, but it's there on time. He's always had tremendous bat speed, and if you make a mistake he's going to hurt you."

So when J.P. Howell walked Miguel Cabrera to load the bases with two outs in the seventh Friday, Maddon knew he better bring in right-hander Dan Wheeler to face Sheffield or run the risk of seeing a 4-2 lead disappear.

Wheeler entered the game with a myriad of thoughts floating in his head.

"I obviously wanted to get ahead of him," Wheeler said. "I was trying to locate a fastball, that's what I was trying to do the whole time. I was able to put the ball where I wanted to, for the most part. Just make him put the ball in play.

"But at the same time, I didn't want to give him anything he could do a lot of damage with. ... Even if I walk that guy, I still have a one-run lead. So I was just trying to put a fastball in a good location and he put the ball in play."

Wheeler executed his plan, getting Sheffield to ground out to shortstop Jason Bartlett to end the inning and lead to a 5-2 win for the Rays in front of a crowd of 26,403 at Tropicana Field.

"Oh [seeing the groundout], it was such a good feeling," Wheeler said. "There's really no let up in that lineup. They're a terrific hitting team. You still have to go out there and keep your focus on every pitch."

By winning, the Rays moved to 64-44 on the season and improved their home record to 41-16. And as has been the Rays' theme all season long, they claimed a total team victory.

Want to know how much the Rays have changed over the course of a year? Try this one on. Staff ace Scott Kazmir struggled with his control, while making his 17th start of the season. In the first inning alone, the 24-year-old left-hander threw 32 pitches, of which 19 were balls, and he walked in the Tigers' first run. He allowed one more run before leaving the game with two outs in the fifth after walking his sixth batter with his 110th pitch of the game.

In the past, such a performance by their ace would have doomed the Rays to become road kill. Instead, a parade of relievers beginning with Grant Balfour did their thing, adding 4 1/3 scoreless innings to preserve the win. Troy Percival finished off the performance with a scoreless ninth to earn his 24th save of the season.

"These guys have picked me up so many times, it's a great feeling out there to know these guys have your back, especially the bullpen," Kazmir said. "You can't say enough about these guys, every time they come in they shut the door, so a lot of credit to those guys."

Percival's ninth was greatly aided by a diving catch by defensive replacement Gabe Gross for the second out of the inning. And good news for Rays fans came in the fashion of Percival's 93-mph fastball -- a good indication the closer truly is the healthiest he's been since returning from a left hamstring strain.

Carlos Pena delivered the big hit on Friday night when he led off the sixth by depositing a 3-2 pitch from Zach Miner over the center-field wall to give the Rays a 3-2 lead. Cliff Floyd followed with a double, and one out later he scored on a wild pitch by Joel Zumaya to give the Rays a 4-2 lead.

After Wheeler repelled the Tigers' threat in the seventh, Evan Longoria hit a two-out homer in the bottom half of the inning for his 20th of the season and a 5-2 lead for the Rays.

"I liked the aggressive nature of the team tonight," Maddon said. "I liked the intensity with which we played. Defense, how about the play by Gabe Gross? Awesome. Pitching, defense, we also got some timely hits. ... [It was a] nice team win."

Bill Chastain is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.