Aybar leads off inning with blast as Rays walk off Mariners

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- The Tampa Bay Rays retained the best record in baseball with another stellar pitching performance.

Bailing out a suddenly sputtering offense, James Shields pitched eight strong innings to keep the AL East leaders within striking distance of the Seattle Mariners in a 3-2 victory Saturday.

The Rays wiped out a 2-0 deficit in the eighth. They won it when Willy Aybar led off the bottom of the ninth with a homer to right-center that enabled Tampa Bay to avoid falling into a tie with the New York Yankees for the top record in the majors.

"That's how you win championships. You've got to win the 3-2, 2-1, 4-3 games. You've got to outpitch them. You've got to out-defense them on certain nights," manager Joe Maddon said after his team improved to 6-5 in one-run games.

"We're slumbering right now, but they're going to be fine. In the meantime, it's wonderful that we can win with pitching and defense."

Rafael Soriano (2-0) pitched a scoreless ninth in relief of Shields to get the win.

Reid Brignac's pinch-hit RBI single off reliever Brandon League trimmed Tampa Bay's deficit to 2-1, and Jason Bartlett's sacrifice left the Rays with runners at second and third with one out.

Carl Crawford was walked intentionally to load the bases before Ben Zobrist's sacrifice fly tied it at 2.

Aybar, in the lineup with struggling slugger Pat Burrell designated for assignment earlier in the day, homered off Jesus Colome (0-1) on a 3-2 pitch.

"That's not something you want to see happen to anybody, obviously, because we're all teammates and we get along," Aybar said through a translator. "It's a front-office decision and you've just got to take it and go with it."

Seattle starter Jason Vargas limited the Rays to fifth-inning singles by Evan Longoria and Carlos Pena before B.J. Upton and Dioner Navarro singled to begin the eighth.

Mike Sweeney homered for the third straight game, and Ichiro Suzuki had two more hits for Seattle to match a career best with seven consecutive multi-hit games.

"It is about winning and losing ballgames, but these guys came out and played an awfully good team and battled until the end," said Mariners manager Don Wakamatsu, noting his team hurt itself with squandered opportunities on offense.

Seattle was 0 for 7 with runners in scoring position.

"It's the little things that are going to affect whether we win ballgames," Wakamatsu added. "When you leave no wiggle room for your bullpen, it comes back to haunt you."

Shields allowed two runs and six hits over eight innings in his first start since being on the losing side of the perfect game by Oakland's Dallas Braden last Sunday.

Sweeney homered leading off the third against Shields, who struck out 10 and walked none. Shields also hurt his cause in the first with an errant pickoff throw and a wild pitch that enabled Chone Figgins, who had doubled, to reach third and score the game's first run.

The Rays were second in the majors in runs entering Saturday, but they've sputtered offensively during an eight-game stretch following a sweep of the Mariners in Seattle from May 4-6.

Before the game, the Rays designated Burrell for assignment and purchased the contract of former Texas infielder Hank Blalock from Triple-A Durham, where the two-time All-Star hit .349 in 26 games.

Vargas allowed two runs and four hits in seven-plus innings.

"The pitching was pretty impressive," Wakamatsu said. "I don't blame the bullpen as much as I do being able to score runs when we have to."

Game notes
The Mariners have seven homers in the past three games after hitting 13 in the first 33. ... Burrell was batting .202 with two homers and 13 RBIs in 24 games. He was 2 for 25 in May with no extra-base hits or RBIs. ... Seattle LHP Erik Bedard, returning from shoulder surgery, might go to the Mariners' complex in Arizona for part of his rehab program. He is not expected to rejoin the rotation until next month. ... Rays 3B coach Tom Foley was back after missing Friday's series opener to attend to a family matter.