MIAMI — Never mind that Josh Johnson had already thrown 114 pitches on a 91-degree afternoon. The Florida Marlins' ace was feeling good as new.
Here's the scenario: All-Star vs. All-Star, Johnson vs. Evan Longoria. Tampa Bay has runners at first and third, two outs in the eighth inning. Johnson throws a 96 mph fastball for strike one, makes another 96 mph offering that just misses, and Longoria digs in for a third heater from the big right-hander.
Johnson's last pitch was an 84 mph slider that Longoria popped up and the Marlins went on to beat the Rays 4-1 on Sunday.
"J.J., that's why he's your No. 1 guy," Marlins manager Fredi Gonzalez said. "He's the ace."
Outdueling David Price in a matchup of two of baseball's top starters, Johnson (8-2) struck out nine and walked none in eight brilliant innings. He gave up six hits while throwing 87 of his 117 pitches for strikes. His ERA dipped a bit to 1.80.
"He's very good," Rays manager Joe Maddon said. "He's one of the best pitchers in either league."
Wes Helms hit a two-run homer, Cody Ross had two hits and scored twice and the Marlins took two of three from the Rays for the second straight weekend. Gaby Sanchez hit an RBI triple and Leo Nunez pitched a perfect ninth for his 15th save in 18 chances.
"That team is one of the best teams in major league baseball," Johnson said. "We've just got to keep it going, keep doing what we've been doing and find ways to win. Then as soon as everything starts clicking, that's when you start talking about winning streaks."
Carl Crawford homered and had two hits for the Rays. Price (10-3) gave up six hits and four runs, three earned, while striking out nine in six innings.
Only a smattering of those buzzing air horns were heard Sunday, after 15,000 were given out in a World Cup-themed promotion Saturday night that annoyed several players and Maddon. Noisemakers are typically banned from the stadium anyway.
The big buzz Sunday was this: For the first time in nearly two months, the Rays were knocked out of first place in the AL East, after the Yankees beat the Mets 4-0 in New York.
"We had some decent hits, but couldn't get the big knock," Maddon said.
It was just the second time in Johnson's career that he struck out nine batters without issuing a walk. He did it Aug. 4, 2009, against Washington, a game in which he carried a 4-0 lead into the seventh only to have the Marlins lose 6-4.
No chance of that Sunday. Nunez got his second 1-2-3 save of the series.
"We're definitely where we want to be," Helms said. "We want to have a better record, but as a team, we're pulling together a little better."
With Johnson pitching, the Marlins didn't need much offense.
Florida opened the scoring when Mike Stanton drove in his ninth run on a fielder's-choice grounder in the second. Tampa Bay answered in the fourth on Crawford's seventh homer.
The Marlins reclaimed the lead in the fifth, with some help from the Rays.
Chris Coghlan hit a one-out liner to center off the heel of B.J. Upton's glove and reached first on the error. He scored one batter later when Sanchez's hit to right-center scooted past Ben Zobrist toward the wall for an RBI triple that put Florida up 2-1.
"It seemed like everybody behind home plate was wearing white shirts," Upton said. "I just didn't see it."
Another misplay aided the Marlins in the sixth. Ross hit a popup into short right, and Rays second baseman Sean Rodriguez overran the ball, losing it in the sun. It landed behind Rodriguez, Ross hustled into second and came in on Helms' two-run homer to left for a 4-1 lead.
"When you pitch against Josh Johnson, you have to bring it to another level and I didn't do that today," Price said. "I have to bring my 'A' game against him. It just didn't happen."
After the game, the Marlins optioned RHP Jay Buente to Triple-A New Orleans. RHP Jorge Sosa will be designated for assignment before Tuesday's game in Baltimore, and two pitchers will be added that day. … Since returning from Tommy John surgery in July 2008, Johnson is 30-8 with a 2.95 ERA. … With his 44th hit, Crawford passed Luis Castillo as the career leader in the Tampa Bay vs. Florida games known as the Citrus Series. … Rays TV announcer Dewayne Staats called his 4,999th big league game.
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