ST. PETERSBURG — That was more like it.
More like the way Scott Kazmir can pitch. More like the way the Rays play. And more like the way things have to go from here on out to make a return trip to the postseason.
Looking nothing like they did in Monday's embarrassment, the Rays combined Kazmir's sharp start with solid relief work, hustle on the bases and dazzling defense Tuesday. The result was a 6-2 victory over the Yankees that they admitted afterward was indeed of somewhat grander proportions than manager Joe Maddon wanted them to think.
"It felt like it was a huge game," Kazmir said. "Especially with what happened (Monday) night, just to kind of get back on track and get our confidence back."
"It was very important for us to win today," Ben Zobrist said.
Important in halting their slide from the division race, as they improved to 55-46 and moved back within 6½ games of the division-leading Yankees, with a chance to get to 5½ in tonight's series finale. And to within four of the wild-card leading Red Sox, whose ninth-inning collapse several Rays watched and cheered on the clubhouse TVs.
And in providing a reason to at least continue talks about a potential major trade before Friday's nonwaiver deadline, with Indians ace Cliff Lee among the persons of interest as they weigh the merits of improving the chances of winning now against the cost of swapping key future pieces.
But also because of how they did it, a reassuring return to the style that seems to work best for them.
"We pitched it, we caught it, we got a clutch hit, there was some really aggressive baserunning, a lot-of-hustle kind of attitude," Maddon said. "I like the attitude tonight."
The examples were all over the field.
Kazmir firing his fastball and having the confidence to throw his slider in key situations, then Grant Balfour getting three huge outs in the eighth, and J.P. Howell getting the last one.
Jason Bartlett going deep in the hole to make one amazing play, and B.J Upton and Carl Crawford running down balls as they denied the Yankees repeatedly.
The hustle in taking extra bases, beating out infield hits and benefiting from two Yankees errors, Gabe Kapler, Bartlett and Zobrist all standing out. They chased CC Sabathia in the sixth, and for the first time in 12 games since the All-Star break, they took an early lead and held it until the end.
"That's the way we won a lot of games last year, with the solid starting pitching, just finding a way to put runs on the board and playing great defense," Zobrist said. "That is kind of the Ray Way that we've talked about."
"A tidy game of baseball," Balfour said. "Everybody did their job."
None more so than Kazmir, who won for the first time in 2½ months, worked into the eighth for the first time in more than a year and, with a solid delivery and a quick tempo, reminded all what he was still capable of.
"You can't put into words how big that was for him, and for the team,'' Zobrist said.
Trade rumors had been Kazmir's latest issues, and he admitted to some fleeting thoughts it could be his last start as a Ray. But by the end of the night, as the crowd of 32,304 stood and roared when he walked off the mound, everything seemed right.
"The best thing about the whole night was when I came out and the ovation I got," he said. "It felt good, really good. It was a little emotional. … It was special. I'll remember that for a long time."
Marc Topkin can be reached at [email protected]