Kapler's homer breaks tie, lifts Rays over Nats in eighth

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- Even though he's batting less than .200, the Tampa Bay Rays continue to show faith in Gabe Kapler.

That loyalty paid Friday night.

One pitch after an error prolonged his at-bat, the slumping Kapler hit a pinch-hit home run that snapped an eighth-inning tie and gave the AL champions a 4-3 victory over the Washington Nationals.

Stuck in a 3-for-31 slide that dropped his batting average to .173, Kapler went deep against Ron Villone (3-2) after first baseman Nick Johnson dropped a pop foul that would have been the third out.

"I was screaming at the ball and I think it heard me and skipped off Nick's glove," Kapler said. "I guess I really wanted that opportunity."

Kapler primarily plays against left-handed pitchers and said he's extremely appreciative that manager Joe Maddon continues to pencil him into the lineup and bring him off the bench against lefties.

"One of the things I'm most impressed with this season is the fact I've struggled fairly significantly, and every time there's a lefty out there, I get the chance to start," Kapler said. "It tells me he believes I can get the job done."

Villone was on his way to an easy one-two-three eighth when Johnson settled under Kapler's pop foul. He made a slight adjustment at the last moment, but couldn't hold onto the ball.

"I just missed it. Plain and simple," Johnson said. "Saw it the whole way, just didn't catch it."

J.P. Howell (2-2), the fourth Tampa Bay pitcher, worked 1 1/3 innings to get the victory that moved Tampa Bay (32-31) one game over .500.

Another sloppy performance by the Nationals, who allowed two unearned runs, prompted manager Manny Acta to hold a team meeting.

"We have to make sure we don't give any extra outs," Acta said. "That really ends up biting us."

Washington's Elijah Dukes had a two-run double, helping his team take a 3-0 lead in his first trip to Tropicana Field since the Rays traded their former prospect to the Nationals after the 2007 season.

Dukes ability was never an issue during a turbulent stay in Tampa Bay's minor league system and one rocky season with the major league club. But his temper and several off-the-field transgressions were a hindrance, and the Rays eventually ran out of patience.

His first-inning double off Matt Garza set off a celebration among a group of family and friends who rose to cheer each time the 24-year-old, who went to high school in Tampa, came to the plate. Rays fans greeted him with scattered boos.

Adam Dunn drove in Washington's first run with a first-inning single off Garza, who allowed three runs and seven hits in 5 2/3 innings.

Tampa Bay erased a 3-0 deficit with help from a throwing error by Nationals catcher Josh Bard that allowed B.J. Upton to trot home from third base after he and Carl Crawford executed a double steal in the third inning.

Dioner Navarro had a RBI single in the second and Gabe Gross doubled down the right field line off reliever Joel Hanrahan to drive in the last run charged to starter Craig Stammen to make it 3-3 in the sixth.

Stammen, one of four rookies in Washington's rotation, allowed four hits, walked three and struck out five.

DH Pat Burrell returned to the Rays' lineup after missing 29 games with a neck strain and went 0-for-3 with a walk. ... Tampa Bay LHP Scott Kazmir (strained right quad) threw 44 pitches in a simulated game and likely will begin a minor league rehabilitation assignment at Class A Charlotte in the middle of next week. ... Rays SS Jason Bartlett (left ankle sprain) began a rehab assignment at Charlotte. He went 1-for-4 with a walk as the designated hitter Friday and is expected play shortstop Saturday and Sunday before being evaluated. ... Washington RHP Kip Wells (groin strain) will pitch on consecutive days Saturday and Sunday for Class A Potomac. ... Nationals LHP Scott Olsen (left shoulder tendinitis) will make a rehab start this weekend with Triple-A Syracuse.