ST. PETERSBURG - Pounding pitch after pitch down into the strike zone, Roberto Hernandez found a groove and stuck with it nearly to the end.
Hernandez looked nearly unhittable for most of Wednesday's game, allowing just three base runners in a dominant performance in Tampa Bay's 3-1 victory against Miami in front of an announced crowd of 16,671 at Marlins Park. The Rays have won 12 of the past 13 meetings between the teams.
Hernandez (3-5) fell one out short of his first complete game in nearly three years while allowing just three hits. At one point he retired 15 consecutive batters and erased 26 of 27 he faced after giving up a leadoff double to Chris Coghlan to start the game until Placido Polanco's two-out single in the ninth.
Fernando Rodney came on to record the final out for his 10th save as Tampa Bay (28-24) won its fourth in a row to move a season-high four games over .500. The Rays remain fourth in the American League East but are just three games behind division-leading Boston.
Tampa Bay got to that point on Wednesday behind a strong performance from Hernandez, who was in need of a good showing after struggling in recent starts.
“I tried to keep the ball down, throw strikes and show no quit,'' said Hernandez, who had his longest outing since a complete game on Sept. 10, 2010.
“I know whenever they give me the opportunity to go to the mound I have to try to do my job. When they gave me the ball today, I tried not to think, I just tried to throw a good game.''
Hernandez did more than that after he was staked to a two-run lead after consecutive hits by Ben Zobrist, Matt Joyce and Kelly Johnson to start the game led to a pair of runs.
Coghlan led off the bottom of the first with a double and came around to score on the next play when Matt Joyce's throw to third trying to get Coghlan, who was tagging up, skipped past Evan Longoria and into the dugout.
The Marlins would not get a runner past first base the rest of the game. Hernandez retired the next 11 batters after Coghlan reached, then after Marcell Ozuna had an infield single, promptly retired the next 15 before ending his night after 92 pitches. He recorded 12 ground-ball outs and struck out five.
“He was pretty darn good,'' manager Joe Maddon said. “He wasn't overthrowing, wasn't trying to do too much, had great movement and good command of his slider, which he used at the right times.
“But he really had a nice rhythm and a nice tempo and I thought he kept getting better all night long. Overall, he has to feel pretty good about himself. He was outstanding.''
Catcher Jose Molina said Hernandez was in control the whole game, and it showed.
“He was calm, he was not as hyper as other outings, so he was a little bit calm, and I don't know if that helped, but it looked like it did,'' Molina said. “It was helping that he was throwing strikes, and pretty much it helped everything else. And he was good from the get-go.”
Molina was just enjoying the ride behind the plate and didn't want to upset any of the rhythm Hernandez had going.
“I just put my signs down and said let's go. I didn't even want to think about it,'' Molina said. “I didn't want to jinx it, and when you have a guy like that, you don't want to even talk to him. It's just, let's go, like when a guy is throwing a no-hitter, you leave him alone. When a guy is in his rhythm, you don't want to mess it up.''