ST. PETERSBURG -- The Tigers didn't get back to .500 for the season, as they had hoped by the end of their three-city, 10-game road trip, but they did get closer.
Considering the way the journey started, getting back to .500 for the trip itself was a minor feat.
"This series is over. Whether it helps us continue to play good baseball, I don't know," catcher Alex Avila said after Sunday's 5-3 victory over the Rays earned them three out of four at Tropicana Field for the second time in as many years. "I know we want to finish strong going into the break and at least be over .500 by the time we get to the break. Obviously, [that means] we have to win the next two series."
Time will tell whether this year's series victory over the Rays has that impact like their four-game series here last year, which they later said gave them the confidence for their late-season run. However, the close, low-scoring games they played once again showed the kind of baseball they haven't played often this season.
Three of the four games were decided by three runs or less, and the four-run win they posted Saturday night was a 1-0 game until the eighth inning. Detroit's starting pitchers combined to allow nine runs over 24 innings, with four of the runs coming off of ace Justin Verlander. The lone runs off of Detroit's bullpen were two solo homers off of Joaquin Benoit on Saturday night.
The combined effort salvaged a 5-5 record for the trip, their best mark out of a three-city trek since last September's division-clinching trip to Chicago, Oakland and Kansas City, when they went 6-3, though this year's trip may be more impressive considering all of their opponents had winning records.
"To be on the road and play Pittsburgh, Texas and the Rays, it was big to come out .500," said rookie left-hander Drew Smyly (3-3), whose five innings carried the finale to the bullpen. "This was a good series for us. Going home for seven games, hopefully we can get on a roll and finish strong before the All-Star break."
With the Twins and Royals coming up, they have an excellent opportunity to get on a roll if they can continue playing like this.
"It's not a time to back off, just because we're headed towards that break," said Austin Jackson. "I think this is the time to really push and try to come out on top for the first half."
Smyly arguably pitched better than his numbers would indicate, as he retired 12 straight batters after Desmond Jennings led off the game with a walk that set up B.J. Upton's sacrifice fly.
He had a 1-1 game with a no-hitter going through four innings before back-to-back sacrifice flies from Delmon Young and Avila pulled Detroit ahead in the top of the fifth. Three fifth-inning hits, capped by Jose Molina's game-tying RBI double, gave Tampa Bay a new game.
Jackson, snubbed earlier in the day when All-Star rosters were announced, fueled the go-ahead rally in the sixth by driving in Don Kelly, and he scored on Prince Fielder's two-out RBI single up the middle.
Detroit's bullpen took it from there, as four relievers fired four scoreless innings and struck out six, starting with Brayan Villarreal fanning the side in the sixth, and ending with a perfect ninth from Jose Valverde for his 15th save.
"I think the whole bullpen is doing what they want us to do," Benoit said. "I think we are basically set. I don't think there's any open space from the sixth on."
Phil Coke, Benoit and Valverde excelled in their roles. Villarreal is arguably forging his. When he first came up, he was essentially an injury replacement. When they promoted him to shorter, close-game situations, he was filling in as well. His improved control has turned him into a piece that fills out the group.
"What [Quintin] Berry's been for us as far as the offense, Villarreal's been like that pitching," Avila said. "He kind of brings a different dynamic. When he went down to the Minor Leagues, he made the adjustments he needed to make, knowing that his stuff is electric. He was lights-out being able to bridge that gap between Smyly going five today and that sixth and seventh, knowing you have Benoit and Valverde and also [Octavio] Dotel."
If he can stay that way, the Tigers bullpen has the chance to go six deep in late-inning arms when Al Alburquerque returns sometime after the break. If the Tigers keep playing this way, they'll have plenty of chances to use them, probably in a playoff race.
They're three games back, the same spot where they stood a week ago. They're a game under .500, the same spot they stood six days ago, and six other times since they last owned a break-even record in mid-May. More important, they're confident, perhaps more than they've been in weeks.
"We battled on this road trip," Jackson said. "And that just says a lot about the team, just coming out of the funk a little bit."