Aybar's sac fly gives Rays walk-off win

Rays walk off on Aybar's sac fly

ST. PETERSBURG -- For weeks, fans in Tampa Bay had been anticipating the reinstatement of pitcher Scott Kazmir off the disabled list and back into the rotation he once anchored.

The anticipation seemed lined with ambiguity -- nobody knew what Kazmir would look like when he returned. There was curiosity at how he might rekindle the moxie that had made him a two-time All-Star. There was apprehension about whether that had somehow been lost for good.

But in his comeback Saturday night, after Rays manager Joe Maddon waited until the last possible moment to announce his starting date, Kazmir did just enough to dispel the concerns about his effectiveness.

He also left some intrigue, and more anticipation for start No. 2.

Kazmir sailed through five innings in his first start after missing 32 games with a strained right quadriceps, allowing two runs on four hits, one walk and five strikeouts in a no-decision against the Marlins. The Rays won, 3-2, on a sacrifice fly by Willy Aybar in the ninth inning at Tropicana Field in front of 35,790.

For the second straight night, the game was decided by the bullpens, and Tampa Bay's relievers continued their string of recent success.

Jason Bartlett hit a one-out single in the ninth inning, stole second base and advanced to third on a wild pitch. The next batter, the pinch-hitter Aybar, lined to center field deep enough to get Bartlett home for the winning run.

"I love the fact that he was aggressive running out there," Maddon said of Bartlett.

The Rays fell behind, 2-0, but fought back earlier in the game. B.J. Upton had a bunt single that idled up the first-base line and drove in Bartlett to tie the score at 2 in the fifth. This came after Carlos Pena had put the Rays on the board with his 23rd home run of the season in the fourth inning.

It was the 100th home run of Pena's career as a Ray, passing Fred McGriff for second on the franchise's all-time list.

Those were the only blemishes against Florida's young right-hander Chris Volstad, who pitched six sharp innings and allowed five hits, two runs, three walks and struck out five. He's won only once in his past five starts.

It was obvious, though, that Kazmir was a different pitcher than the one who last pitched on May 20, when his ERA was at an abysmal 7.69. His velocity had kicked back up to the low 90s and his slider reappeared with the depth that Maddon was looking for.

"I was really impressed," Maddon said. "I thought the rhythm in his delivery was great and the velocity was there. I just thought he was sharp."

Kazmir gave up a run in the first inning after Emilio Bonafacio reached, stole two bases and scored on a groundout by Hanley Ramirez. He gave up a solo home run to Brett Carroll in the third inning.

Otherwise, he allowed a few scattered hits and seemed in control of his repertoire, which could not have been said before his stint on the DL. At one point, he threw four changeups in a row. He struck out the first batter of the game on a 93-mph fastball.

"I feel like I have a lot more confidence out there," Kazmir said. "I feel like my fastball, I have a lot of life to it. I won't hesitate to throw it in any count, same with my slider or my changeup."

"Kaz is a huge part of what we're doing right here," Maddon said. "He's one of the better left-handed pitchers in the American League, and to get back there, we need him to pitch and perform at his level."

The win gives Tampa Bay four in a row and nine of its past 10 at Tropicana Field. The Rays are 12-5 in Interleague Play this season.

But it also reaffirmed two key ingredients to Tampa Bay's 2008 success that had partly been missing so far this season: the bullpen and Kazmir.

Since June 8, Tampa Bay's bullpen has an ERA of 1.00 -- a statistic that is not lost on Maddon.

"We're expecting to win games late," Maddon said. "When a game is getting to that seventh, eighth or ninth inning situation and it's close, I thought at the beginning of the year we were just hoping to get out on top. Now we're expecting to get out on top."

And Kazmir's re-emergence adds another element of satisfaction to the win. Though it wasn't vintage dominance, it certainly appeared to be a step in the right direction.

"I wanted to go out there and prove something," Kazmir said. "I can definitely build off this start and hopefully get on a roll."

Zach Schonbrun is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.