Joel Peralta got the biggest outs of the game, and Tampa Bay showed how important its bullpen has been to its recent success.
The right-hander out of a bases loaded, no-out situation in the eighth inning and the Rays beat the Toronto Blue Jays 4-3 Saturday for their 16th win in 18 games.
Jeremy Hellickson won his fifth straight decision, and Desmond Jennings reached base four times but it all could have been for naught if Peralta hadn’t come through. The nine-year veteran called it one of the most important relief appearances of his career.
"It was really big," he said. "I’ve probably had some of those before but with the spot we’re in right now, second place, a couple of games behind Boston, it’s really huge."
Since starting the season 14-18, the Rays are a major league-best 43-23 since May 8. They visit the AL East-leading Red Sox for four games starting Monday.
Rookie Wil Myers had two RBIs in his first career start as the cleanup hitter. Myers, who finished 2 for 4, has nine hits in his past 17 at bats.
Jennings went 3 for 4 with a walk and scored twice.
Toronto’s Jose Bautista homered for the second straight game but the last-place Blue Jays lost for the fifth time in six games. Expected to contend this season, the Blue Jays have struggled instead, winning just one of their past seven series.
"Maybe we were overrated," starter Mark Buehrle said. "Maybe we aren’t as good as we thought we were."
Pitching despite suffering from an illness, Hellickson (9-3) allowed two runs and five hits in five innings, walked three and struck out three. The right-hander is 5-0 with a 2.19 ERA in his past six starts.
Hellickson started feeling nauseated and lightheaded following batting practice on Friday, and said the heat made things rough on him Saturday
"It felt pretty good, it was just so hot I got a little lightheaded those first couple of innings," he said.
Alex Torres was perfect in the sixth and seventh but left after walking Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion to begin the eighth. Peralta came on and loaded the bases by walking Adam Lind, but escaped by getting Colby Rasmus to foul out, striking out Maicer Izturis looking and fanning J.P. Arencibia on a 3-2 pitch.
"It was Houdini-esque," Maddon said. "Just a masterful job on his part."
Peralta didn’t start the inning because Maddon is trying to keep him fresh for September and beyond. But for the second straight game, it backfired.
"What I’ve been trying to do is make it easier for him," Maddon said. "I’ve just been making it more difficult. What he did right there was spectacular."
Gibbons, who was the bench coach in Kansas City when Peralta pitched for the Royals, said the 37-year-old right-hander has "turned into a heck of a reliever."
"He’s good under pressure, he doesn’t give in to anything," Gibbons said.
Closer Fernando Rodney’s fielding error allowed Brett Lawrie to score from third on Encarnacion’s infield chopper in the ninth. Rodney responded by getting Lind to fly out, wrapping up his 23rd save in 28 chances.
"We had our opportunities, especially late, but we couldn’t get that big one," Blue Jays manager John Gibbons said.
Buehrle (5-7) lost his second straight start, giving up four runs, three earned, in seven innings. The 10 hits he allowed matched a season-high. He walked three and struck out five.
Buehrle lost at home for the first time since May 1 against Boston. He’s 4-2 in 10 home starts this season but 1-5 in 10 road outings.
Myers gave the Rays the lead with a sacrifice fly in the first, and Tampa Bay scored three more off Buehrle in the third. Sam Fuld and Jennings both singled and Ben Zobrist walked to load the bases before Evan Longoria drove in a run with a fielder’s choice grounder. Myers followed with an RBI single and a third run scored when second baseman Brett Lawrie made a throwing error on Ryan Roberts’ grounder.
Bautista got the Blue Jays on the board with a two-out homer in the bottom half, his 22nd. Encarnacion followed with a double and Lind walked, but Hellickson struck out Rasmus to end the threat.
Rays DH Luke Scott singled to begin the eighth, extending his hitting streak to a career-high 12 games.
NOTES: Rays SS Yunel Escobar (right hamstring) missed his second straight game. Manager Joe Maddon said Escobar likely won’t return until Monday. … Tampa Bay is 23-22 on the road. … A group of about 1,000 Montreal Expos fans sat in the left field seats, part of an effort to try and lure a big league team back to Quebec. … Former Blue Jays slugger Carlos Delgado will be honored before Sunday’s game when his name is added to the team’s Level of Excellence. … Tampa Bay RHP Chris Archer (4-2) will face Toronto RHP R.A. Dickey (8-10) in Sunday’s series finale.