Aybar leads way in Rays' rout

Rays trim magic number to 10

ST. PETERSBURG -- Years from now, there's a good chance the Rays will look back on the just-completed series with the Red Sox and fondly remember how they made their bones.

The Rays topped off their biggest series of the season Wednesday night with a 10-3 win over the Red Sox in front of a sellout crowd of 36,048 at Tropicana Field.

By winning, the Rays took two out of three in their final series of the season against the Red Sox, earning bragging rights against their American League East rival by winning 10 of the 18 games they played this season.

"What has happened here says a lot about this team," Carlos Pena said. "That was a tough loss for us [Monday night], but it was just another loss, nevertheless, so we came back, kept on playing our game and won this series. That says a lot about the character of this ballclub."

The Rays pushed their lead to two games over the Red Sox and the Rays' magic number to win the American League East is now at 10, meaning any combination of Rays wins and Red Sox losses adding up to 10 will result in the Rays' first division championship. In addition, their magic number to clinch a playoff spot is just three.

With the win, the Rays became the sixth team in MLB history to win 90 games immediately following a stretch of at least 10 consecutive losing seasons.

Pundits figured that once September rolled around, the Rays might crumble despite owning a 5 1/2-game lead over the second-place Red Sox. Initially, the forecast looked prophetic. The Rays lost five of the first six games they played in September before recovering to take two out of three against the Red Sox at Fenway Park. Then they lost two straight to the Yankees before getting beat by the Red Sox, 13-5, Monday night and allowing the Red Sox to join them in first place.

Never a team to quit all season, the Rays fought back with a 2-1 walk-off win Tuesday night to again take a one-game lead over the Red Sox, which seemed to be a good thing since a reckoning appeared to be on the horizon with Tim Wakefield starting for the Red Sox on Wednesday night.

Wakefield long ago staked claims on Tropicana Field, a building many felt the Red Sox knuckleballer owned. Time and again he validated the old saying that trying to hit a knuckleball was akin to eating soup with a fork. Entering Wednesday night's start, Wakefield had a 9-2 record with a 2.45 ERA in 22 career appearances at Tropicana Field. Based on that success, Rays manager Joe Maddon embraced a favorite philosophy that says insanity is continuing to do the same thing over and over when it doesn't work.

Teams to win 90 games following a stretch of at least 10 consecutive losing seasons
Year
Team
1912
Washington Senators
1914
Boston Braves
1956
Cincinnati Reds
1979
Montreal Expos
2006
Detroit Tigers
2008
Tampa Bay Rays

So Maddon decided not to start left-handed-hitting Cliff Floyd against the right-hander. After all, Floyd had just one hit in 11 career at-bats against Wakefield and, to date, Willy Aybar had never faced him. Thus, the switch-hitting Aybar got the start at DH and validated Maddon's hunch with a two-run homer -- hitting right-handed instead of lefty against the right-hander -- in his first at-bat to put the Rays up 3-2.

"We were joking around in the dugout before he hit the home run," Pena said. "A popular game in the Dominican Republic is to hit the bottlecaps with the sticks. So I'm like, 'Hey man, Willy's played a lot of bottlecaps with sticks. It's a good matchup here.'

"That was huge because we came back immediately after they scored those two runs [in the top of the first]. We were able to put something on the board immediately and go ahead at the bottom half of that inning. That was big for us and Willy just came out big."

Wakefield's knuckler began to resemble a pinata at a kid's birthday party and every Rays player seemed to have a turn whaling away with the broomstick. Gabe Gross connected for his 13th home run of the season with one out in the second and Fernando Perez followed with his second home run of the season -- like Aybar, he also hit right-handed even though he is a switch-hitter -- to put the Rays up 5-2. Boston manager Terry Francona finally pulled the plug on Wakefield after Evan Longoria doubled to left with one out in the third.

"We've gotten so many good games out of him," Francona said. "He threw some good pitches. I thought their approach was pretty good. ... And then he left a few up and they started whacking the ball pretty good."

Rays vs. Red Sox in 2008
Date
Result
WP
LP
Site
4/25TB, 5-4 (11)DohmannTimlinTropicana Field
4/26TB, 2-1DohmannBuchholzTropicana Field
4/27 TB, 3-0ShieldsBeckettTropicana Field
5/2BOS, 7-3BuchholzJacksonFenway Park
5/3BOS, 12-4BeckettShieldsFenway Park
5/4BOS, 7-3LesterKazmirFenway Park
6/3BOS, 7-4MastersonGarzaFenway Park
6/4BOS, 5-1BeckettJacksonFenway Park
6/5BOS, 7-1LesterShieldsFenway Park
6/30TB, 5-4ShieldsMastersonTropicana Field
7/1TB, 3-1GarzaWakefieldTropicana Field
7/2TB, 7-6GloverHansenTropicana Field
9/8BOS, 3-0LesterJacksonFenway Park
9/9TB, 5-4WheelerPapelbonFenway Park
9/10TB, 4-2 (14)MillerTimlinFenway Park
9/15BOS, 13-5MatsuzakaKazmirTropicana Field
9/16TB, 2-1WheelerMasterson Tropicana Field
9/17TB, 10-3BalfourWakefieldTropicana Field

Meanwhile, Matt Garza started for the Rays on three days' rest, and had it not been for Red Sox slugger David Ortiz, he might have lasted long enough to qualify for the win. But by the time Ortiz came to the plate in the fifth with two on and two out, he already had a two-run homer and a solo blast, so Maddon went to the bullpen and Grant Balfour.

Fans of the game were then treated to a mano-a-mano contest between the hard-throwing Balfour and the equally hard-swinging Ortiz, who turned on the fan twice and missed before finally sending a deep fly to center field. This time it stayed in the ballpark for the third out.

"It was a great move [bringing in Balfour]," Garza said. "At the point it happened, I didn't like [the move]. As a player, though, you know what's best for the team."

Garza did not get a win, but he scored points in the clubhouse after taking one for the team. The Rays' bullpen effort of Balfour, J.P. Howell and Chad Bradford finished the final 4 1/3 innings, allowing no runs and just one hit to preserve the win.

"We win the season series, which has an impact potentially, and furthermore it's winning the series again two out of three," Maddon said. "It's another Meatloaf situation. I look at it that way. The most significant part about that is we win the season series, which can impact something as we go down the road."

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