So, Wednesday could be the day the Rays capture their first American League East title, if they defeat the Orioles and the Red Sox lose to the Indians.
"[We] taste it a little more tonight," said J.P. Howell, who pitched scoreless eighth and ninth innings in the second game to earn his third save of the year. "[The magic number is] two. We need a little help from Boston; but we can't rely on that like all year, just keep this thing moving. And even if we do win the division, it doesn't mean stop yet. [We've got to keep it going] all the way to Oct. 30 in my book, that's my clock-out date right there."
With Tampa Bay trailing by four in the eighth, Ben Zobrist tripled to lead off the inning and scored on Willy Aybar's groundout. One out later, Evan Longoria hit his 26th home run of the season, a 407-foot blast that cut the Orioles' lead to 5-3.
Pinch-hitter Rocco Baldelli then legged out an infield hit and Gabe Gross walked to keep the inning going. Rays manager Joe Maddon had a surplus of regulars on the bench because they had played in the first game, so he called on hot-hitting starting shortstop Jason Bartlett to pinch-hit for Eric Hinske against left-hander Jamie Walker. And Bartlett promptly singled to score Baldelli.
Maddon then called upon starting catcher Dioner Navarro to pinch-hit for Michel Hernandez. After a wild pitch by Walker that moved both runners into scoring position, Navarro singled to put the Rays up, 6-5.
"You're looking up and down at the groupings here, and you know they normally close down left-handed," said Maddon looking at the lineup sheet he used during the game. "[Left-hander George] Sherrill's going to close for them, but Walker's available, and we have all these lefties in the lineup. And we had a bunch of righties sitting down. So I was just kind of trying to plot how to use them.
"I did not want to hit for Gross there because I wanted more people on base for Bartlett, and then Navarro, and it worked out."
The Orioles brought in Kameron Mickolio to pitch to B.J. Upton, but he could not stop the surge any more than Walker, as Upton doubled home Navarro to put the Rays up, 7-5.
"Anytime we string hits like that together, we're a tough ballclub," Upton said. "And for some reason, the eighth inning has been our inning all year. And like I said, we just strung some hits together. A couple of big knocks from guys off the bench -- which is not easy to do. So I think, overall, we're happy with it."
Mitch Talbot made his first Major League start for the Rays in the second game and gave up three runs in 4 1/3 innings. Jeff Niemann followed and pitched through the seventh, allowing two runs in 2 1/3 innings to pick up his second win of the season.
"[It was] quite a comeback right there," Maddon said. "Everybody contributed once again. The whole team got involved in that win. I thought Mitch did a nice job, I thought Niemann did a nice job out of the 'pen. And, of course, J.P.'s been doing that out of the 'pen all year. He was very sharp tonight. He was real sharp.
"But all the guys who came off the bench -- big hit [for] Bartlett, big at-bat [with] Gross walking -- then of course B.J. ... It was [about] really good at-bats the latter part of the game. But again, the pitching hung in there well enough. ... We couldn't get anything going [early], but eventually, we did."
In Game 1, James Shields held the Orioles to two runs on eight hits in seven innings to pick up his 14th win of the season and tie Rolando Arrojo for the Rays' club record for most wins in a season, established in 1998.
Grant Balfour pitched a scoreless eighth and Dan Wheeler followed with a scoreless ninth to preserve the win and earn his 13th save of the season.
"It always feels good to win two games in one day," Maddon said. "I never liked the concept, actually, of playing two games in one day. I know there's a time when it's kind of nice, when you pay for one and see two like people did tonight. And if you're a kid, you like seeing two games in one day. But as a professional baseball player, [during] the latter part of the season, they're no fun. So fortunately, we came out on top in both."