ST. PETERSBURG -- Tropicana Field had a playoff atmosphere Saturday night as a rookie paved the way for a pivotal 6-2 Rays win over the Blue Jays.
With a raucous crowd of 27,773 watching, the Rays moved to within 1 1/2 games of the American League Wild Card-leading Red Sox. Boston lost to the Yankees, 9-1, on Saturday afternoon.
"It's outstanding," Rays manager Joe Maddon said. "If you would have told us at the beginning of Spring Training we'd be in this position right now, I think the whole organization would take it, the players would take it and the fan base would take it."
Jeff Niemann started the game but left after one inning, opening the door for Alex Torres to shine. Tampa Bay's playoff hopes hung in the breeze when the rookie left-hander entered the game to make his fourth Major League appearance, which have all been in relief after he made 27 starts this season at Triple-A Durham. Torres responded with five scoreless frames in which he allowed just three hits and a walk while striking out five.
"I never feel nervous," Torres said. "When I came up [to the Rays] the second time [this season], I told Joe Maddon, 'I'm just going to make adjustments, because I've been a starter all year in Triple-A.' Like I said to him, 'If you're going to use me in any situation, I'll be ready for that.'"
Maddon noted that Torres' performance was "really above and beyond."
"They hit some balls hard against him the first couple of hitters," Maddon said. "Then after that, he really settled in and started making some better pitches. I thought he brought the changeup into the mix more consistently.
"He knew where the fastball was going, too. And once he had those two things going on, he got really good. Definitely he's a tough guy. He's got the right kind of makeup to play here. He's got AL East makeup, that's fantastic."
Jose Lobaton's work behind the plate went a long way toward offering Torres a calm voice as the pair had worked many times as a battery at Durham this season.
"I tell him, 'High pitch here, they'll kill you, so just keep it down,'" Lobaton said. "So I put my glove down, [and he threw] it to my glove."
In a briefer outing -- but just as impressive as Torres' stint -- Brandon Gomes pitched the seventh and set the Blue Jays down in order, striking out two of the three hitters he faced, before Joel Peralta pitched a scoreless eighth.
"How about Gomes tonight," Maddon said. "Gomes really elevated what he's been doing recently. ... The look -- he went right after them and made good pitches. He was definitely in the moment."
Tampa Bay clung to a precarious 3-2 lead heading into the bottom of the eighth. That's when Johnny Damon came through with the big hit, a two-out, three-run homer off Ricky Romero to put the Rays up 6-2.
"It's disappointing -- obviously I don't want to be the reason why those guys go to the playoffs," said Romero, who took his 11th loss of the season. "I'm pitching my heart out out there, we're playing our hearts out and we want to win every game from here on out. It's disappointing, but there's nothing you can do."
Kyle Farnsworth, who had not pitched since Sept. 10, retired the Blue Jays in order in the ninth to finish out the win.
"[Pitching in a game is] totally different from throwing off the mound," Farnsworth said. "Bullpens and stuff don't compare to getting out there and getting into game situations. So we talked about today if I could get in sometime in a good situation. Today was a good situation. Go out there and just knock the rust off."
Niemann did not look sharp from the beginning, surrendering a two-run homer to Jose Bautista that gave the slugger 43 on the season and staked the Blue Jays to a 2-0 lead. Given the time left in the season and the way Niemann looked, Maddon couldn't afford to let Niemann find himself.
"I did not like the way he looked in the beginning of the game," said Maddon, who noted that Niemann getting lifted had nothing to do with the upper-back stiffness that delayed him starting by two days. "I didn't see the normal snap in the breaking ball and I didn't see the normal velocity. ... So I thought, 'Why wait?'"
On many occasions this season, a 2-0 deficit would have spelled doom for the team's erratic offense. But the Rays fought back in the bottom of the first with a little help from the Blue Jays and Tropicana Field.
First came B.J. Upton's popup that Blue Jays first baseman David Cooper lost in the backround of the Trop's ceiling, and the ball fell to the ground in foul territory. Upton then dropped a single into right and stole second base. One out later, Ben Zobrist hit a ball to shortstop and Mike McCoy threw wild to first, allowing Upton to race home with the Rays' first run.
Damon followed with a pop to center field that was placed perfectly in the shared area past second base that is patrolled by the shortstop, the second baseman and the center fielder. When Blue Jays second baseman Kelly Johnson backed up looking to make the catch, center fielder Colby Rasmus suddenly backed off -- as did Johnson -- and what should have been an out turned into an RBI double that tied the score at 2.
Zobrist led off the fourth against Romero by hitting his 18th home run of the season -- and third in the last seven games -- into the left-field stands for a 3-2 Rays led.
The Rays met their magic mark by scoring six runs Saturday night -- they have won 26 consecutive games when scoring five or more runs -- but the game clearly belonged to a bullpen that logged eight scoreless innings to set a new club record.
"Those young guys, you can't say too much about them -- they looked awesome coming in there and shutting the door," Farnsworth said. "Picking up Niem and the team and everybody, it was an all-around good win."
Bill Chastain is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.