ST. PETERSBURG — The Rays stretched their winning streak to a season-high nine games Saturday night because their offense managed just enough runs and the bullpen closed the door on the Red Sox.
Another shutdown job by the pen that ended in another hold for Brad Boxberger and another 1-2-3 save for Jake McGee that finished a 3-0 victory in front of 26,659 at Tropicana Field.
Here something else that looked familiar: Grant Balfour.
Not the Balfour from earlier this year, but Balfour circa 2008, the one who followed J.P. Howell to the mound when the moment was hot and dashed the flames.
It happened in the sixth inning when the Red Sox put runners on the corners with no outs against lefty Jeff Beliveau after a single to right field by Mike Napoli and a broken-bat grounder by Jonny Gomes that somehow slipped between Evan Longoria and Yunel Escobar.
The Rays led 2-0 at the time. The wasted opportunities in the first four innings appeared to be looming large.
But Beliveau struck out Stephen Drew and Balfour came on to get the next two outs the end the threat.
Rays manager Joe Maddon said he had that thought in the dugout as the inning unfolded.
“J.P. Howell being played by Beliveau, and then you had Grant Balfour playing himself,” Maddon said.
Balfour smiled at the memory.
“Sounds good,” he said. “If it works out that way and we get the same results. I’ll take it if that’s what’s going to get us to the World Series. I’m all about winning. It doesn’t matter what role I’m in or what I’m doing. I’m all about winning.”
Balfour pitched another inning to earn his first victory of the year.
McGee earned his 11th save, tying him with Balfour for the team lead.
This is the second-longest winning streak in team history behind the 12 consecutive wins recorded by the 2004 Devil Rays.
The Rays trail the AL East-leading Orioles by 61⁄2 games and are 31⁄2 games out of the second wild-card spot. The Rays also are just two games under .500.
The surging Rays are 27-11 since June 11 and 15-4 this month.
The Red Sox have lost five straight.
Jeremy Hellickson returned to the rotation and pitched 42⁄3 innings, well short of the “six solid” projected by Maddon before the game. Hellickson left with two outs in the fifth after allowing a two-out single to Dustin Pedroia.
With David Ortiz due up, Maddon called for the left-handed Beliveau. Ortiz turned on a fastball and ripped toward right field, but James Loney made an inning-ending grab.
Getting big outs from relievers other than Boxberger and McGee helped ease the burden on those two later in the game, Maddon said.
“I’m just trying to go out there and bridge the ball to Boxy and McGee, because they’ve been lights out,” Balfour said. “They’re carrying us, and if we can get the ball to them we know we got a great shot.”
The Rays scored a run in the first when Desmond Jennings dropped a bunt in front of the plate and raced all the way to third base after Red Sox catcher Christian Vazquez threw the ball past Napoli and up the right-field line.
After a walk to Ben Zobrist, Matt Joyce singled to right field to score Jennings.
Base runners were easy to come by for the Rays. It was getting them home that became a problem.
The Rays couldn’t do anything after Joyce’s hit that inning, as Lackey retired the next three batters in order.
The Rays had two on with one out in both the second and third innings and came away empty each time.
They finally broke through against John Lackey in the fourth when Escobar singled to start the inning and moved to second on a sacrifice bunt by Jose Molina. A single by Kevin Kiermaier scored Escobar and the Rays had a two-run lead.
It became a three-run lead in the seventh when Zobrist lined his eight home run of the season down the right-field line and into the seats.
“It was a good game again,” Maddon said. “We’ve playing a lot of good games. Understatement. Captain Obvious.”