Rays catch late break, edge Nationals

Rays catch late break, edge Nationals

ST. PETERSBURG -- Gabe Kapler has had a tough season. So tough that when he stepped to the plate to pinch-hit with two outs in the eighth inning Friday night, the scoreboard taunted him with reality: Average, .173.

Not exactly a confidence booster.

While Kapler has been in a season-long slump, he has hit some balls hard lately, just right at someone. So a break had to come his way sooner or later, which is exactly what happened. And Kapler's break, a solo homer, paid off with a 4-3 Rays win in the opening game of a three-game Interleague series at Tropicana Field against the Nationals.

In victory, the Rays won their third game in a row while moving over .500 for the season at 32-31.

Despite Kapler's sagging season, Rays manager Joe Maddon stuck to his guns by pinch-hitting Kapler for Gabe Gross against Nationals left-hander Ron Villone.

Kapler fell behind 1-2 when he hit a pop foul that hovered high in the air. Nationals first baseman Nick Johnson appeared to be camped under in foul territory, but at the last instant, he stabbed at the ball and it dropped to the turf.

"I was screaming at the ball as loud as I could and I think it heard me and kind of ducked away from Nick's glove there," Kapler said. "I guess maybe I wanted that opportunity badly."

Given a reprieve, Kapler connected on Villone's next pitch, a fastball, and deposited the ball into the left-field stands for his second home run of the season to break a 3-3 tie.

"He just dropped it," Nationals manager Manny Acta said. "It ended up costing us the game, but he has come up big a lot of times. It's another one of the little things."

Ironically, Kapler homered Monday night in New York, which means he has now gone deep in each of his past two games after going homerless in his first 34.

"His swing is not necessarily fluid, and I think part of that is that when he's cold, he gets off," Maddon said. "But when he gets the feel going, heads up, because once the feeling arrives, he gets really toasty."

Kapler wanted to talk less about his home run and more about the opportunities he has been given this season.

"I think one of the things I'm most impressed by this whole season, and the fact is that I've struggled fairly significantly here, and still, every time there's a lefty out there I get to start, or I have to this point," Kapler said. "And when there's a good pinch-hit opportunity, Joe and his staff have shown a tremendous amount of loyalty to me. And to me, that's pretty special. That shows a lot. It's an honor to have that kind of loyalty thrust in my direction. So I'm most appreciative."

Kapler's heroics rewarded yet another stellar bullpen effort that saw the relief corps put up 3 1/3 scoreless innings after taking over from starter Matt Garza with two outs in the sixth. As a whole, the bullpen has worked 17 consecutive scoreless innings, including 16 scoreless during the current homestand. None of those innings were bigger than the eighth Friday night.

Adam Dunn doubled off Dan Wheeler to lead off the inning and moved to third when Elijah Dukes flew out to left. Alberto Gonzalez then came in to pinch-run for Dunn.

With the go-ahead run standing on third, Wheeler got Josh Willingham to fly out to shallow left and Carl Crawford threw a strike to home, keeping Gonzalez at third. J.P. Howell then came in and walked Willie Harris before getting Josh Bard to fly out to center field to end the threat.

Howell returned to pitch the ninth and retired the side in order to earn his second win of the season.

"I was just trying to get an out any way possible and I was having a little bit of a tough time with my curveball," Howell said. "So I definitely had to locate everything else and I tried to keep the ball down and away and they hit a ground ball here and there and everything worked out.

"It takes a whole bullpen, and that's something we're fortunate to have. We have a lot of guys who can go out there and put up zeroes and that leads to a lot of positives."

Reflecting on the key moment of the game that saw Johnson drop Kapler's popup, Maddon expressed how he has talked to his team about such moments all season.

"It's a one-run game and we got the break tonight and we were able to capitalize on it," Maddon said. "We've seen that go against us several times this year. In order to get back to the promised land, you've got to win those one-run games. Hopefully this will be the beginning of doing this more consistently."

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