DETROIT — The Tampa Bay Rays were doing everything right Friday night to beat the Detroit Tigers. They were scoring runs, and they were preventing runs.
Then came the sixth inning, and things began to unravel. Rays starter Alex Cobb hit Detroit’s Ian Kinsler with a pitch. Warnings were issued. A walk, an RBI single, another walk. Bases loaded, nobody out.
Here come the Tigers.
And here comes Brad Boxberger, the Rays’ unassuming right-hander who is developing into what manager Joe Maddon used to call Grant Balfour and J.P. Howell back in 2008: a middle-innings closer.
Boxberger got his team out of the jam, and the rest of the game was routine, as the Rays cruised to a 6-3 victory at Comerica Park.
“Couple of quick hits from that lineup and it’s a totally different ball game,” Boxberger said. “At that point, it’s good to get the momentum back on our side.”
The Rays won for the seventh time in nine games on this 11-game road trip. They are now 15-8 since June 11. What’s more, with the Toronto Blue Jays losing and the Baltimore Orioles rained out, the Rays gained a half-game in the American League East standings and sit nine games behind the first-place Orioles.
Desmond Jennings had three hits, including a pair of doubles, and scored three times. Ben Zobrist had a pair of RBI doubles. Evan Longoria hit his 11th home run of the season. Sean Rodriguez just missed a three-run homer when he tripled off the top of the right-center field wall and had to settle for a two-run triple.
It was the first time in 20 games the Rays scored more than four runs against the Tigers.
The crowd of 40,657 that jammed into the stadium on Fourth of July fireworks night saw a little fireworks early as the Rays and Tigers traded hit-by-pitches and the umpires felt they had to grab control of the situation by issuing warnings to the dugouts in the climatic sixth inning.
Cobb hit Detroit’s cleanup hitter Victor Martinez in the fourth inning. Tigers starter Drew Smyly hit Longoria, Tampa Bay’s cleanup hitter, in the sixth inning.
So when Cobb hit Kinsler with curveball to start the bottom of the sixth inning, crew chief Greg Gibson issued warnings.
There is a little history between the two teams from 2013. Last year’s Rays closer, Fernando Rodney, buzzed Miguel Cabrera at Tropicana Field. The following day, Detroit’s Rick Porcello hit Ben Zobrist.
“For me, it’s done. It’s moot point,” Rays manager Joe Maddon said. “For me to get reinvolved in that is absolutely insane.”
Smyly denied hitting Longoria on purpose, and Martinez denied there was any carryover from last season.
“No, not at all. In this room, I don’t think anybody thinks that we have bad blood against the Rays,” Martinez said. “They have a good team. We have a good team. I don’t think Cobb hit me on purpose. It’s pretty obvious that it’s a really close game and you don’t want to hit somebody and put the tying run or whatever on base. The ball got away from him and that was it.”
Umpiring at home plate Friday was Quinn Wolcott, who was named a full-time umpire by Major League Baseball earlier in the day.
Both Cobb and Maddon thought the warnings were issued to protect Wolcott, who does have experience in the majors. Maddon was ejected after arguing with Gibson.
“Sounds like he was trying to protect a younger umpire behind the plate, and I understand that,” Cobb said, “but it’s got to be looked at in a different way and have better judgment, I think.”
Cobb said the proof was in the pitch.
“If I’m going to send a message, I’m going to throw a fastball, hopefully below the waist,” he said.
Cobb said he was trying to pitch inside when he hit Martinez with a fastball.
Maddon said Smyly retaliated against Longoria, who also homered off Smyly during his previous at-bat, but said Cobb didn’t retaliate against Kinsler.
“Why would we throw at Victor? We hit Victor, yes. Total accident,” Maddon said. “He pulled a fastball. Then they intentionally hit Longo. We’re not going to reciprocate right there. We’re not. It’s over. We’re good.”
Tigers manager Brad Ausmus said no one threw at anyone.
“I really didn’t think there was any intent on any of the balls that players were hit,” Ausmus said. “I didn’t think Cobb tried to hit Victor. I didn’t think Smyly tried to hit Longoria. And I didn’t think Cobb tried to hit Kinsler. I think it was a situation where three guys got hit, but I don’t think there was any intent or malice.”
After the warning, Cobb had to pitch to Cabrera knowing pitching inside was not a good idea.
“It was a little big discouraging just for the fact that we got the best hitter in the league coming up kind of feeling a lot more comfortable on the inner half of the plate,” Cobb said. “You got to work around that. It didn’t affect anything with the guys on base or anything along those lines, but it was a little bit different in the way you have to attack guys.”
With Maddon gone from the game, bench coach Dave Martinez made the call to the bullpen after Cobb walked J.D. Martinez to load the bases and the Rays leading, 5-2.
It was the third time this season Boxberger entered a game with the bases loaded and the third time he kept the opposing offense in check.
“Now I’m getting kind of used to it, the situations I get thrown into,” Boxberger said. “Just being able to slow everything down in the moment and be able to work on one pitch at a time is how I stay focused on what I needed to do.”
Boxberger traded a run for two outs when he got Torii Hunter to hit into a double play that cut the Rays’ lead to two runs. He said he was actually going for the strikeout with the idea of getting Don Kelly, the next batter, to hit into a double play. Instead, Boxberger struck out Kelly.
“It’s pretty comforting to have him out there,” said Cobb, who won back-to-back starts for the first time this season.
Joel Peralta, who became the franchise’s all-time leader in appearances with 267, pitched a perfect eighth inning. Jake McGee worked the ninth for his fourth save.
None of that, though, would have happened without Boxberger.
“It was unbelievable. He’s been doing that for us all year,” Cobb said. “Our whole bullpen is spectacular. As you’re walking off the mound and look to see who’s coming in after you, you’re not upset by anybody who’s coming in.”