ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. (AP)—There’s no secret to the success of the Tampa Bay Rays this season. Good pitching, solid defense and timely hitting carried them to the top of the AL East standings.
The same winning combination is keeping them there.
Evan Longoria went 3-for-4 and drove in three runs and B.J. Upton made a “Willie Mays-esque” catch in center field to help an improved bullpen hold off Boston 7-6 Wednesday night for Tampa Bay’s second three-game sweep of the World Series champions this season.
“It’s a really good feeling. I can’t tell you that I expected it—I’d be lying—but right now … we do expect to win on a nightly basis,” manager Joe Maddon said after the Rays improved the best record in baseball to 52-32.
They did it Wednesday night by rallying from a three-run deficit in the seventh inning, extending their lead in the division to a franchise-best 3 1/2 games over the second-place Red Sox, who matched a season high with their fifth consecutive loss.
Tampa Bay is 6-0 at home against Boston, which has swept a pair of three-game series from the Rays at Fenway Park.
“It reaffirms to us that we can play against these guys and we can beat the Red Sox,” Maddon said. “Now we have to prove that we can beat them in Fenway Park also.”
Longoria had a RBI single off Daisuke Matsuzaka in the first inning, and his two-run double off Craig Hansen (1-3) was the big blow in a six-run seventh and gave the rookie 15 RBIs in his last 10 games.
Jason Bartlett also had a two-run single in the seventh, making it 7-4 and setting off chants of “Sweep! Sweep! Sweep!” among the crowd of 36,048, the Rays’ fourth sellout of the season and just the 12th in the club’s 11 seasons.
Gary Glover, the third of four Tampa Bay pitchers, allowed one run in 1 2-3 innings for the win.
The Red Sox made it interesting in the ninth for the third straight night, pulling within 7-6 on Kevin Youkilis’ sacrifice fly, which Upton ran down to make the catch on the warning track with his back to the plate.
“I actually had no idea where the wall was. The only thing on my mind was catching that ball,” Upton said. “I didn’t think it was hit that well. … It just kept going and going, and I stayed with it.”
Maddon called the catch, robbing Youkilis of an extra-base hit and maybe preventing the tying run from scoring from first base: “Magnificent. … Willie Mays-esque.”
“Not many people make that play,” Maddon said.
Dan Wheeler then struck out Varitek for his third save in as many opportunities.
Dustin Pedroia went 4-for-5, finishing a single shy of becoming the first Boston player to hit for the cycle since John Valentin in 1996. He homered in the first off Scott Kazmir, then tripled and scored in the third and doubled and scored in the fifth while helping the Red Sox build a 4-1 lead.
Pedroia, 25-for-44 during a 10-game hitting streak, flied to center in the sixth before delivering a two-out RBI double off Glover that trimmed Tampa Bay’s lead to 7-5 in the eighth.
With Boston carrying their longest losing streak in more than two months to New York for a four-game series against the Yankees, Pedroia found little consolation in becoming the first Red Sox second baseman to have four extra-base hits.
“This series, they played better than us. They pitched better than us. They hit in the clutch better than us,” Pedroia said. “That’s why we didn’t win any games.”
The Red Sox wasted scoring opportunities in the second and fourth against Kazmir, and wound up paying for the lack of production. The Tampa Bay starter escaped both of those jams with help from Boston’s Julio Lugo.
Lugo grounded out with runners at second and third to end the second, then was called for interfering with shortstop Bartlett trying to break up an inning-ending double play with the bases loaded in the fourth.
Jacoby Ellsbury beat the relay to first, allowing a run that would’ve put Boston up 3-1. But Lugo stood up as he was sliding wide of second base to hinder Bartlett’s throw, and Ellsbury was ruled out—denying the run and ending the inning.
Pedroia led off the fifth with a double, then scored on J.D. Drew’s triple. Two outs later, Drew hustled home on Kazmir’s wild pitch to make it 4-1.
Bartlett began the Tampa Bay seventh with a double off Manny Delcarmen. He stole third and scored on Akinori Iwamura’s RBI single. Carlos Pena drew a bases-loaded walk from Hansen to cut Boston’s lead 4-3 before Longoria’s double put the Rays ahead.
“We missed a lot of opportunities to spread the game out,” Boston manager Terry Francona said. “But still saying that, we had a lead … got to Delcarmen, and things unraveled in a hurry.”
Pedroia has homered eight times in his last 39 games after hitting one in his first 45 this season. … Boston CF Coco Crisp served the final day of a five-game suspension for his role in the June 5 benches-clearing brawl between the Red Sox and Rays. He’s eligible to return to the lineup against the Yankees on Thursday. … Rays reliever Al Reyes, out since June 10 because of right shoulder tendinitis, is progressing and may throw batting practice this weekend. … Francona said RHP Mike Timlin (left knee tendinitis) will be activated from the 15-day DL Thursday. RHP Chris Smith will be optioned to Triple-A Pawtucket.