ST. PETERSBURG — Throughout the Rays' record offensive outburst in a sweep of the Orioles, they, as they have all season, scored in some wild ways.
Five bases-loaded walks. Two bases-loaded hit batters. In Sunday's sixth inning alone, Tampa Bay scored three runs without putting the ball in play.
But one particular play stole the show in the Rays' 10-4 victory in front of 32,379 at Tropicana Field, completing a series in which they racked up a club-record 34 runs over a three-game stretch.
Sure-handed shortstop Jason Bartlett hit his first home run in more than a year, spanning 471 at-bats, with his solo shot to leftfield in the seventh. Acquired from the Twins in the offseason, Bartlett has become what manager Joe Maddon labels a candidate for team MVP.
But as the Rays (84-51) capped their winningest month in club history with their ninth sweep of the season, pulling 51/2 games ahead of the Red Sox in the AL East to begin a tough September stretch, Bartlett believes the fact that every member of the team has had MVP moments in its remarkable run shows why it can sustain its success in a playoff push.
"There's not one guy that stands out; it's somebody different almost every night," Bartlett said. "People talk about 'team of destiny' and all that stuff, and I think this is how it happens. It's pitching, defense, a timely hit by somebody different every night."
The Rays had all of the above Sunday afternoon. There was James Shields (12-8), giving the bullpen a break by giving up just one run in seven innings to tie his career high in wins.
There was utilityman Ben Zobrist, who stepped in at center after B.J. Upton was hit by a pitch (Upton is okay) and made a great diving catch in the seventh. There was Rocco Baldelli (3-for-3) and backup catcher Shawn Riggans (2-for-5, two doubles) helping a lineup of right-handed hitters carve up an Orioles southpaw for the second straight day, "hoping to dispel the rumor we can't hit left-handed pitching," Maddon said jokingly.
But what had Maddon impressed the most was how the Rays did it. He pointed out the "spectacular" mental approach in their at-bats (drawing seven walks for a series total of 25), to how they consistently beat Baltimore to the first-base bag from the first (Carlos Pena) to the seventh (Akinori Iwamura, who forced an error).
"I liked the idea we kept adding on, these guys are still running hard with a big lead late in the game," Maddon said. "We have to play with the foot down, the pedal to the metal. We can't take anything for granted.
"The moment you do that, everything blows up."
Maddon said that because of their depth, he wasn't surprised the Rays went 21-7 in a month in which they played without core players such as Carl Crawford, Evan Longoria, Troy Percival and even Bartlett for stretches.
And as Tampa Bay pursues its goal of playing deep into October, 12 of the next 15 games will come against the defending world champion Red Sox and the Yankees, whom the Rays host Tuesday. But Bartlett said they're "pumped" for September, as "no one wants to play us, especially at home."
"We're an anonymous group," Maddon said. "And we're playing in a non-anonymous way right now."
Joe Smith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.