ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. (AP)—Evan Longoria’s homer snapped a sixth-inning tie. The rookie’s stellar defense sealed another Tampa Bay victory and spoiled Lou Piniella’s return to Tropicana Field.
Longoria fielded Reed Johnson’s ninth-inning bunt with his bare hand and threw to first on one hop Tuesday night, preventing the tying run from scoring from third base in the Rays’ 3-2 victory over the Chicago Cubs.
“He put it down in a good spot, and it was just do or die,” Longoria said, adding that first baseman Willy Aybar deserved just as much credit for handling the hurried throw cleanly to end the game.
“Probably the best bunt play I have ever seen, capped off with the pick by Aybar,” closer Troy Percival said. “That ball right there, typically, is going to be bobbled just enough for the guy to be safe.”
Cliff Floyd also hit a solo homer for the Rays, connecting off Ryan Dempster in the second inning. Longoria led off the sixth with his 11th of the season, snapping a 1-all tie against Neal Cotts (0-1), who had a two-base throwing error in the seventh to set up Tampa Bay’s other run.
Grant Balfour (1-0) pitched 1 1-3 innings in relief of Scott Kazmir to get the win. The starter held the Cubs to one run and three hits in 4 2-3 innings, and the Rays bullpen limited the team with baseball’s best record to three hits the rest of the way.
“They’re a good team. I’ve seen that all year,” Dempster said. “They’ve got a real good pitching staff. They’ve got a good bullpen. They’ve got a lot of good young players.”
Percival, whose veteran leadership is one of the reason Tampa Bay is off to its best start in franchise history, worked an eventful ninth for his 16th save in 18 opportunities.
After Geovany Soto flied out on the warning track in left, The closer gave up a single to Mark DeRosa and a double to pinch hitter Kosuke Fukudome. DeRosa scored on a passed ball, and the Rays nearly blew the lead when Percival’s low pitch to pinch hitter Jim Edmonds skipped past catcher Dioner Navarro with two outs.
But the ball caromed off the backstop perfectly, forcing Fukudome to remain at third. When Edmonds walked, Johnson layed a bunt down the third base line that caught Percival and Longoria by surprise.
“He probably thought that he could get the third baseman napping a little bit,” said Piniella, the former Rays manager now in his second season with the Cubs. “As it was, the kid came in barehanded, and the first baseman made a real nice catch.”
The victory before a crowd of 31,607—a number bolstered by thousands of Cub fans relishing Chicago’s first-ever trip to Tampa Bay—was the Rays’ 41st victory of the season, one shy of their most ever before the All-Star break.
They won 42 before the break in 2004, when Piniella wound up leading his hometown team to a franchise-best 70 wins.
Piniella was with the Rays from 2003-2005, going 200-285 before being bought of the final year of his contract. It’s a move he sought because losing was wearing on him, and the 64-year-old lifelong resident of Tampa reiterated before the game that he has no regrets.
“I’m happy where I’m at right now. It’s worked out well for everybody,” Piniella said, adding that it’s great to see his old team doing well and contending in the AL East.
“We had a nucleus of good young kids here. There were areas, obviously, that the organization needed to get better at. And, they have, to their credit,” he said.
Kazmir is one of the youngsters Piniella was talking about. At 24, he’s the youngest member of Tampa Bay’s rotation and is already the club’s career leader in wins, strikeouts and innings pitched.
The left-hander held the Cubs hitless until Henry Blanco singled off the glove of diving second baseman Akinori Iwamura with one out in the fifth. After fanning Ronny Cedeno, he gave up an infield single to Johnson and the Cubs tied it 1-all when Ryan Theriot’s grounder deflected off the glove of diving first baseman Willy Aybar and bounded over the head of Iwamura for a RBI single.
Kazmir walked Derrek Lee to load the bases, but the Cubs wasted an opportunity to go ahead when Balfour struck out Aramis Ramirez to end the inning. Kazmir, who’s allowed just two earned runs and 15 hits in five home starts this season, threw 110 pitches.
Dempster threw 107 pitches in five innings, departing after allowing one run and six hits. He walked two and struck out six.
Kazmir walked four and struck out seven. … Rays LF Carl Crawford finished a four-game suspension for his part in Tampa Bay’s bench-clearing brawl at Boston on June 5 and returns to the lineup Tuesday. Iwamura is appealing his three-game suspension, which was scheduled to start Wednesday. … The Cubs recalled OF Matt Murton from Triple-A Iowa. INF Eric Paterson was optioned to Iowa.