For a second consecutive night, Rays manager Joe Maddon had to look to his relief corps early and it responded with bankable results.
On Thursday night at Tropicana Field, the Rays rode that bullpen performance and a lively offense to an 11-1 win over the Angels to claim their third consecutive home series and move back to .500 for the season (31-31). The Rays have not lost a homestand since the White Sox left town on April 19 after winning three of four.
The 11-1 margin is the Rays' biggest margin of victory against the Angels in team history, leaving beleaguered Angels manager Mike Scioscia to state: "That was a bad game tonight. None of us are happy about how we went after it tonight."
David Price started for the Rays, and the prodigy once again put on display his immense talents. But he continues to fight a bulging pitch count that saw him get the hook with one out in the fifth after throwing 105 pitches. Because Price did not go the required five innings, he did not qualify for the win, even though he left the game with the Rays leading, 4-0.
Grant Balfour took over for Price with two aboard. After allowing an RBI single to Torii Hunter, Balfour got Vladimir Guerrero to line into an inning-ending double play. The strapping Aussie returned in the sixth to pitch a scoreless frame and become the pitcher of record, claiming his third win of the season.
Randy Choate followed Balfour and carried the Rays through the eighth before Joe Nelson finished out the game by retiring the Angels in order in the ninth. For the night, the bullpen allowed no runs in 4 2/3 innings, giving them a composite of 10 scoreless innings over the past two nights.
"We do what we've got to do," Balfour said of the bullpen's effort. "The starters had a really good stretch there. The last couple of days we've eaten up a couple of innings here. It's give and take, you know."
Maddon called 10 innings in two nights by his bullpen "a lot of coverage right there."
"Yeah, I mean they've had two really good nights in a row," Maddon said. "But you just get back to the point where you're not overworking them and then you're concerned that you're going to overwork them.
"But [Dan Wheeler] did not pitch tonight; he just warmed up briefly. [Jason Isringhausen] did not lift his arm up at all. And [J.P. Howell] did not warm up his arm, so in spite of how many innings that [the bullpen] covered tonight, we're pretty fresh for tomorrow."
Joe Nelson said the bullpen seems to be finding a rhythm.
"The good thing that's starting to happen is we're feeding off each other," Nelson said. "Like me and [Balfour], he's my catching partner. We're constantly in each other's ear about [pitching]."
If there was any question the Angels might come back after scoring in the fifth, Rays hitters quickly dispelled any such notion in a fashion that any manager would find endearing: by scoring more runs.
One did have to wonder what Angels starter Ervin Santana was thinking when he buzzed Evan Longoria in the third -- actually nicking him with the high and inside pitch.
Until Longoria's recent hamstring problem, he had been one of the hottest hitters in baseball. But since returning he had been in a career-long 0-for-19 streak. That all changed in the fifth during Longoria's next at-bat against Santana when he re-routed a 2-0 pitch over the 404-foot mark on the center-field wall for his 14th home run of the season and a shining example of the old adage about not awakening a sleeping giant.
Gabe Gross had an RBI single in the fifth -- his third hit of the game and second RBI -- to push the Rays' lead to 6-1. Carl Crawford added a solo home run in the sixth and Dioner Navarro had a solo shot in the eighth before Carlos Pena hit a three-run homer -- his 19th on the season -- to finish the Rays' scoring.
Now, the Rays are all even with 100 games to go in the season. When that fact was called to Maddon's attention, he replied with a simple, "Nice."
"Honestly, I want us to get healthy, we've got to get our starting pitching right, we've got to get the bullpen in order," Maddon said. " ... Again, we have not even come close to playing our best baseball yet and we're nice and handy. I like it because I know our run is coming."
Bill Chastain is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.