Garza flirts with perfection in win

Garza flirts with perfection in win

ST. PETERSBURG -- The Rays were falling early in the American League East standings, had just come off a tough road trip while losing their sixth straight series and badly needed a step in the right direction.

Matt Garza provided that, single-handedly.

The 25-year-old right-hander had a perfect game going through six innings on Thursday, and despite giving up a measly hit to lead off the seventh, threw an absolute gem while shutting out the Red Sox through 7 2/3 one-hit innings. On the other side, Boston starter Josh Beckett was nowhere near as effective, and Tampa Bay jumped all over the ace right-hander en route to a convincing 13-0 win at Tropicana Field.

Tampa Bay's victory came after back-to-back losses and a 3-6 road trip, and over a team the Rays went 8-1 at home against during the regular season last year.

Said manager Joe Maddon: "Even though we scored 13 runs, that game was pretty much dictated by our starting pitcher."

Was it ever.

Garza, who was 0-2 with an 8.74 ERA in his previous two starts, struck out 10 and walked just one while throwing 108 pitches -- 75 for strikes.

After Garza had faced the minimum 18 batters through the first six innings, Jacoby Ellsbury led off the top of the seventh and hit a little nibbler toward shortstop. Jason Bartlett charged hard and barehanded it, but he was unable to get Boston's speedy center fielder at first.

"It sounded like it was coming off [the bat] hard, and then I saw it float by and I dove, and I just saw the ball miss my glove by about inches, and I'm like, 'Ohhh, Barty!' Garza said. "He almost made a great play, though.

"Evan [Longoria] came up to me afterward and said, 'Hey, it's over with. Let's get a double play.'"

After receiving a standing ovation from the 20,341 on hand, Garza did just that, inducing Dustin Pedroia to bounce into a 4-6-3 double play. He then capped his night by striking out Jason Bay on four straight fastballs with one out in the eighth and drew an even louder roar from the fans on his way out.

Red Sox hitters -- against whom he's now 5-1 with a 2.85 ERA for his career -- weren't as thrilled.

"We have to find a way to figure him out," Pedroia said. "He's been throwing the ball great against us."

You name it, Garza did it against the Red Sox.

He flawlessly worked his mid-90s fastball to both sides of the plate and was absolutely nasty with his slider -- Maddon called it "a humpless breaking ball that just got in there and disappeared."

Garza started off ahead on 17 of the 24 hitters he faced, and found himself in just four three-ball counts all night.

Had he not surrendered that hit to Ellsbury, Maddon said, he would have let him throw 125 to 130 pitches to finish it off.

"You could just see his demeanor on the mound was totally under control tonight from the very beginning," Maddon said. "He was just very, very good."

Thursday was the second time Garza lost a no-hit bid to the leadoff batter in the seventh, as he gave up a homer to Marlins shortstop Hanley Ramirez at Dolphin Stadium on June 26, 2008.

No Rays pitcher has thrown a no-hitter, and the longest anybody has gone is 7 2/3 innings -- Dewon Brazelton on June 25, 2004, against the Marlins, and Tony Saunders on April 22, 1999, against the Orioles.

But the 18 batters retired to start a game set the franchise record -- beating Andy Sonnanstine's performance against the Mariners on Aug. 7, 2008, by one batter.

Between innings, Garza chatted with teammates in the dugout. But as perfection neared, things grew relatively quiet in the bottom half of frames.

"It was weird," he said. "First innings, it was a lot of chatter, and at about the fifth, sixth inning, nobody said anything, so I was like, 'Man, I'm trying to start a conversation with people here.'"

The Rays racked up seven runs on 10 hits through Beckett's 4 2/3 innings, forcing him to throw 113 pitches before exiting.

Longoria hit his sixth home run of the season en route to driving in four, Michel Hernandez hit his first career home run and six Rays -- B.J. Upton, Carlos Pena, Pat Burrell, Akinori Iwamura, Longoria and Hernandez -- had multihit games.

The Rays jumped on Beckett in the third inning, when Longoria hit a three-run double and later scored on Burrell's RBI single to give them a 4-0 lead.

Tampa Bay kept pounding away when Hernandez -- starting his fourth game of the season to give Dioner Navarro some rest -- homered on the first pitch of the fifth inning. Crawford added an RBI double in the sixth to give his team a 6-0 lead that seemed like more than enough at the time.

But the Rays poured it on late anyway.

Tampa Bay scored five runs off Javier Lopez in an eighth inning when it sent 10 batters to the plate and forced Red Sox manager Terry Francona to use outfielder Jonathan Van Every on the mound -- with Lopez moving to right field on the double-switch.

Although the move came at a rather meaningless juncture of the game, perhaps it went a long way in giving the offense a nice boost.

"It's a step forward, and a much-needed win," Longoria said. "It'll be a test of this team's character to see where we're at tomorrow."

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