After a 5,000-mile flight from Seattle, it took a few minutes for the Mariners to loosen things up. The closer, David Aardsma, had a tight back. The starter, Ryan Rowland-Smith, was laboring early against Tampa Bay's patient lineup.
But it didn't take too long for the shackles to unlock themselves. And when it was all over, and Seattle had outlasted the Rays, 4-3, at Tropicana Field on Tuesday, the clubhouse stereo was pulsating again, and the Mariners could jump around to their fifth win in six games.
Jose Lopez provided another clutch hit with a go-ahead solo home run off Rays reliever Dan Wheeler on the first pitch he saw in the eighth inning, snapping a 3-3 tie and vindicating Seattle's bullpen, which pitched four scoreless innings to hold back Tampa Bay.
"It's a big win to start a road trip," Mariners manager Don Wakamatsu said.
The Mariners, fresh off a series win over the Yankees, had to overcome some jet lag for this abbreviated two-game series against Tampa Bay, and early on, they showed the signs of wear.
Rowland-Smith toiled through the first two innings, allowing four hits and one run as his pitch count rose steadily. The offense grounded into 5-4-3 double plays to end each of the first two innings.
But slowly things started to flow. Adrian Beltre hit an RBI single to open the scoring in the fourth. And Rowland-Smith battled through his early struggles, forcing the Rays to strand five baserunners in the first two innings and settling into a groove after that.
"I was able to kind of battle back and get through and get deeper in the game than what I was expecting," Rowland-Smith said. "That's the thing I take out of it. I basically kept my team in there even though I didn't have my best stuff tonight."
The right-hander hit trouble again in the sixth inning, after his team had taken a 3-1 lead on a two-run home run by Ichiro Suzuki -- his 11th of the season, and second in four games.
After allowing a walk and a double to open the inning, Rowland-Smith walked Rays catcher Dioner Navarro to load the bases with nobody out. At 113 pitches, Wakamatsu had seen enough to relieve him and turn it over to the bullpen, which was dominant in its effort.
Shawn Kelley allowed two inherited runners to score -- which tied the game -- on one hit, but he avoided any more damage. Right-hander Miguel Batista then struck out the side in the seventh and pitched a flawless eighth to earn the win.
"It was a big outing from Batista," Wakamatsu said. "I thought he had his best stuff of the year."
Batista's dazzling performance may have been in vain if not for Lopez, who crushed Wheeler's fastball to deep left field for his 25th home run of the season.
As Lopez continues his sharp pace in the second half of the season -- he's hitting .283 with 13 home runs since the All-Star break -- the Mariners are finding they have one of the league's top offensive contributors at second base. His 92 RBIs are the second-most at his position in the league (behind Toronto's Aaron Hill, with 100) and his 25 home runs are second-most on the team.
He's also proven to be continually clutch, with three walk-off hits already this season to add to his go-ahead home run on Tuesday.
"He's done a tremendous job," Wakamatsu said. "Ever since we inserted him into that three-hole, he's provided the power, career-highs in RBIs and home runs. He seems to get better every single year."
Aardsma, whose 35 saves rank fifth in the AL, was unavailable on Tuesday because of back tightness, though he said he would've been fine if called upon. Wakamatsu wanted to play it cautiously, so he called on Mark Lowe in the ninth for his third save of the year.
"I felt like I could pitch through it," Aardsma said. "I think the key is that they didn't want it to become anything else, they didn't want it to trigger something and just really lock up on me."
The way the Mariners' bullpen has pitched recently, it doesn't matter who's finishing up. Seattle improved to 32-17 in one-run games, tops in the Major Leagues. It's also won seven of its last 10 games, inching close to 81 wins on the season, which would insure a .500 record.
Zach Schonbrun is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.Less