Rays take series behind Jackson

Rays take series behind Jackson

ST. PETERSBURG -- Diving catches in left field? Solo homers? A dazzling seven starting innings?

Just about the only thing on Thursday night that didn't mirror Wednesday's win was the fate of the Red Sox-Yankees game.

And even that was a good thing.

B.J. Upton's triumphantly raised fist, in response to the Red Sox 3-2 afternoon loss, was the perfect precursor to Thursday night's 3-2 series-clinching Rays victory over the Blue Jays. With the win, the Rays extended their lead atop the American League East to 4 1/2 games over second-place Boston and improved to 11-0-1 in series play since the All-Star break.

After Wednesday's final out came from a diving against-the-wall grab from Justin Ruggiano, left fielder Eric Hinske opened Thursday's contest with a web gem of his own. Hinske laid out to snag Joe Inglett's ball down the left-field line and garner thunderous applause from the small-but-excitable crowd of 14,039 at Tropicana Field.

"Nice catch like that just jumpstarts the game in a positive direction," starter Edwin Jackson said.

The Rays right-hander took it from there, taking a cue from Matt Garza's 7 2/3 shutout innings the previous night, to toss seven strong frames of one-run baseball. Jackson has now won six of his last seven starts, and picked up a career-high 11th win among a franchise-first 81st victory.

"It's getting contagious among the group," Rays manager Joe Maddon said. "If I'm pitching tonight based on what I saw from Garza last night, and I have that kind of abilities myself, I think I'd be inspired by that. And it looked like he was."

Jackson isn't the only Ray playing inspired. Smaller efforts, such as Upton's hit to the right side to move Akinori Iwamura to third, or Cliff Floyd's fly ball in the first inning that was just deep enough to score Iwamura, all become critical in a one-run game.

"I think we're starting to get it," Maddon said. "It's when you put team ahead of yourself personally, that's when you win."

Maddon has long praised the effort and approach that his young squad has put forth daily -- an approach that has left the Rays with wins in seven of their last 10 games, and an 11-5 record without All-Stars Carl Crawford, Evan Longoria and Troy Percival.

"I see us playing the game properly, with the right intent," Maddon said. "There's nothing more I can ask. Just keep doing what you're doing."

Thursday night, they did; as the Rays literally rolled over Wednesday's win to produce another well-pitched, well-played, team victory.

Floyd went yard over the center-field fence for a two-out solo shot in the third inning and Willy Aybar homered on a 0-2 pitch in the sixth to help power up some runs. After a combination of Chad Bradford, Trever Miller and Grant Balfour effectively ended the eighth inning, Dan Wheeler picked up his 10th save to put the game in the book. Wheeler tossed a perfect ninth inning for the second consecutive game, preserving the "W" for Jackson.

"Everything we worked hard for up until now is going to show in this last month," catcher Shawn Riggans said. "It's go time right now."

Riggans, playing in place of Dioner Navarro -- who has been sidelined with hamstring cramps -- picked up a big first out in the third inning. After Jackson issued a leadoff walk to Inglett, Riggans threw a frozen rope to catch Toronto's left fielder stealing and keep the basepaths clear.

Jackson's only real trouble came in the sixth inning, after allowing a leadoff double to Vernon Wells and a single to Adam Lind. But an infield line out, popout and groundout got the Rays out of the potential jam on a mere three pitches. The young flamethrower's lone blemish was scored by Alex Rios, who doubled to open the eighth and was his last batter of the night.

"It was go time a few weeks ago," Jackson said in response to Riggans' comment.

The 24-year-old closed out August with a 4-1 record and an ERA of 2.27 that would rank him fourth in the league as of Thursday.

But beneath each individual standout lies the magic of a total team effort that has buoyed the Rays' remarkable run.

"You'd have to be crazy not to feel it," Jackson said. "It's not like every game we've just come out and blown people away. There's been a lot of close games, a lot of one-run games."

And a lot of similar outcomes, as the Rays improved to 25-15 in one-run games and are now 20-7 since July 29.

Maybe practice doesn't make perfect, but in this instance, it can very well make the playoffs.

Brittany Ghiroli is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.