ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. (AP)—The Tampa Bay Rays found yet another way to win.
The hottest team in baseball won for the first time this season when trailing after eight innings, loading the bases in the bottom of the ninth before getting a two-run double from pinch-hitter Gabe Gross to beat the Houston Astros 4-3 on Saturday night.
The Rays won for the sixth time in eight games, improving to a major league-best 36-19 since April 22 and pulling within a half-game of first place Boston in AL East.
“Confidence,” manager Joe Maddon said, explaining how his young team rallied after falling behind 3-2 in the eighth. “If we can keep it close, we feel we going to do something to win it late. This is another growth moment for us.”
Houston manager Cecil Cooper turned to Doug Brocail (2-3) instead of calling on closer Jose Valverde to try to protect the lead in the ninth because Valverde had either pitched or been up throwing in the bullpen the previous four nights.
The hard-throwing Valverde finished Friday night’s 4-3 victory over Tampa Bay, Houston’s only win since June 10, with a strikeout on a 98 mph fastball. His unavailability hurt, as Brocail failed to record an out.
“There’s no excuses,” Brocail said. “I stunk up the place and we got a loss. It’s a little harder when the team’s been losing.”
The Astros have lost nine of 10, and this one dropped them into last place in NL Central.
“It’s been tough,” Houston’s Carlos Lee said. “Nothing’s going good for us. We won (Friday), but it seems like it’s so hard to win a game. Nothing is coming easy.”
Gross was the third straight pinch hitter to come through for the Rays, who got a leadoff single from Cliff Floyd. Brocail then allowed pinch-hitter Eric Hinske to single and plunked pinch-hitter Dioner Navarro with a pitch to load the bases for Gross, who sliced his double down the left-field line.
“I didn’t take a real good swing, but I got lucky,” Gross said. “Really, at that point I’m just trying to put the ball in play. Anything but an infield popup probably scores a run there.”
Lee hit a solo homer, then broke up a potential inning-ending double play to allow the Astros to take a 3-2 lead in the eighth.
Lee was 2-for-3 and drew an intentional walk from J.P. Howell in the eighth after Lance Berkman struck out, but wound up on second base when catcher Shawn Riggans could not hold onto the third strike and threw wildly past first for an error.
Berkman stole third and scored when Geoff Blum grounded into a force play, with Lee sliding hard into second baseman Akinori Iwamura. Maddon argued unsuccessfully that Lee ran out of the base path to break up the double play.
Justin Ruggiano hit his first career homer, a solo shot in the fourth, for Tampa Bay. Carl Crawford had an RBI triple in the third off Astros starter Wandy Rodriguez, who allowed two runs and five hits, walked two and struck out six in 5 2-3 innings.
Turn Back The Clock/80’s Night, along with a postgame concert featuring Kool & The Gang, drew a crowd of 29,953 to Tropicana Field, up from 14,741 the previous night for the opener of the three-game series.
The Astros wore retro rainbow uniforms from the 1980’s, while the Rays wore home pinstripes honoring the 1989-90 St. Petersburg Pelicans of the Senior Professional Baseball Association, a short-lived league stocked with former major leaguers.
Rodriguez held the Rays hitless until Willy Aybar doubled down the left field line with one out in the fourth. Crawford followed from his triple to wipe out the 1-0 lead the Astros took on Lee’s 16th homer of the season.
Former Astros pitcher Dan Wheeler (2-3) got the win for the Rays.
The Pelicans, the only team to win a Senior Professional Baseball Association championship, were presented championship rings for the 1989 season. Former major leaguer Bobby Tolan was the manager of that team and a number of ex-big leaguers, including Ron LeFlore, Steve Kemp, Lenny Randle, Joe Sambito, Ozzie Virgil, Jr., and Elias Sosa, were among those who returned for the pregame festivities. … Astros Triple-A manager Dave Clark is filling in this weekend for third base coach Ed Romero, who has a sore knee. Romero hopes to resume his duties Tuesday against Texas. … Rays outfielder Rocco Baldelli (mitochondrial disorder), who been sidelined since May 2007, reported no problem from a three-rehab trip to Class A Vero Beach. There’s good chance he’ll return there for more games after Rays officials evaluate his progress.