ST. PETERSBURG — The Tampa Bay Rays scored a couple of runs in the eighth inning Tuesday night to extend their lead to three, which seemed like plenty of insurance with reliever Jake McGee on the mound.
Turns out, they needed both of those runs because the Kansas City Royals made things exciting as McGee tried to finish off his sixth save of the season.
He did, but not until the Royals scored twice and placed the tying run on second base with two outs.
“Jake didn’t break,” Rays manager Joe Maddon said.
McGee ended the game with a blazing 99-mph fastball past Omar Infante as the Rays hung on for a 4-3 victory in front of 12,812 at Tropicana Field.
“Anytime you can go out and get the last four outs of the game is always tough, especially against a team like this,” McGee said. “They have some good hitters over there. It’s hard to do. It’s nice to have that insurance policy, but at the same time you shouldn’t be giving up two runs and making it that close.”
The Rays won for the 11th time in their past 14 games. They can win their fourth straight series tonight in the finale of this three-game set.
“That’s the goal,” Maddon said, “to keep winning series. If we keep winning series we’re going to look up in mid-August at some point and we’re going to be pretty happy with ourselves.”
Jeremy Hellickson returned to the mound for the first time this season and pitched into the fifth inning. He gave way to Brad Boxberger after allowing a pair of one-out walks that put runners on the corners.
“I was pretty anxious,” Hellickson said. “I had a lot of butterflies when I was warming up in the outfield (before the game). It just felt really good to get back on it, on a mound in a big league game. I didn’t really feel nervous there once the game started.”
Hellickson last pitched Oct. 8 in Game 4 of the American League Division Series. He left that game in the second inning after the Boston Red Sox loaded the bases with no outs on a night that ended the Rays’ season.
What was bothering Hellickson that night and what had been bothering him for much of that season — loose bodies in his right elbow — were removed during surgery in late January, a procedure that delayed the start of his season to Tuesday.
Hellickson was 12-10 last year and was the only member of the Rays’ rotation to make 30 starts. But he was removed from the rotation for a week in late August with the purpose of giving him some rest.
Hellickson’s ERA last season was a career-high 5.17, an increase of 2.07 over 2012. Hellickson had trouble holding leads and allowed a number of big innings. That he was on the postseason roster surprised even him.
Pitching with pain in his right elbow for most of the season contributed to Hellickson’s poor year. Hellickson said Monday he knows he needs to pitch like his pre-2013 self for his own peace of mind as well as that of the team.
Against the Royals, Hellickson scattered six hits, walked one and struck out two. He was charged with a run that scored when Brad Boxberger was on the mound.
Hellickson allowed two hits in the first inning and was pitching with runners on the corners when he got Infante to fly out to center fielder Desmond Jennings to end the inning.
“I got out to a pretty rough start there,” Hellickson said. “Leadoff guy gets on, and then I’m out of the stretch the whole inning. It was big to get out of that first inning. It kind of calmed my nerves a little bit. I kind of fell into a rhythm there the last three, four innings.”
Boxberger replaced Hellickson with runners on the corners and got Salvador Perez to chop the ball to Evan Longoria. Longoria’s only play was to first base as Lorenzo Cain came home with the first run of the game.
Longoria put the Rays ahead in the bottom of the inning with a two-run single that scored Ben Zobrist and Brandon Guyer.
Boxberger got the Rays through the sixth inning and was credited with the victory, his second of the year.
The Rays added two more runs in the eighth inning, which began with a leadoff bunt single from Guyer. Longoria reached on a fielder’s choice that did not produce an out because of the hustle to second base by Guyer. James Loney doubled in Guyer, and Logan Forsythe drove in Longoria with a sacrifice fly.
McGee, who replaced Joel Peralta with two outs and two on in the eighth, allowed two runs in the ninth but was able stop the Royals’ rally.
The trouble began when Cain singled off a curveball for his fourth hit of the game. Eric Hosmer got just enough of a fastball to double down the left-field line to put runners on second and third with one out. Perez singled up the middle to score both runs.
But McGee got the next two batters to end the game.
“I gave up a hit on the curveball earlier in the inning, so I was going to stick with my best or get beat with my best,” McGee said. “It worked out well. They were just looking away on the fastball. Hosmer threw his bat out there and got a (double). Perez hit it up the middle, the fastball away. I started to go in more, had more success with (Alex) Gordon and with Infante at the end.”