MINNEAPOLIS — Sure, right-hander James Shields was happy he snapped his careerlong seven-start losing streak Sunday in the Rays' 7-4 win over the Twins.
But what meant more to Shields was that the victory capped a successful road trip in which Tampa Bay took four of six games from Minnesota and Boston — two of the best teams in the American League — and hit the season's halfway point looking more like the club that posted the best start in the majors.
"We're starting to play a little bit better baseball the last couple days," Shields said. "We're showing a lot more fight as a team through the nine innings, and that's what we need. That's what we need going into the All-Star break."
The Rays (48-33) remained two games behind the Yankees in the American League East and just a half-game from the second-place Red Sox, whom they host for a three-game series starting tonight to kick off a seven-game homestand. And after their first series win since June 8-10 against the Blue Jays, they're coming home with confidence, boasting two come-from-behind wins over the weekend and an offense that's starting to show some life.
"I think this is an indication that we're on the right track," third baseman Evan Longoria said. "That we're starting to turn over another leaf as a team."
Shields (7-8) and Twins right-hander Nick Blackburn had a pitchers' duel going until the seventh, when both offenses came alive.
The Rays broke it open with a five-run rally, with the big hits coming on a two-run single by Longoria and a pinch-hit, two-run double by Gabe Kapler.
Those runs became big because the Twins battled back in the bottom half. Shields, who had scattered just five hits over the first six innings, gave up three to the four batters he faced. He loaded the bases with no outs, and Jim Thome hit a two-run single to bring the Twins within 7-3 and chase Shields from the game. He was charged with four runs over six innings.
"I made two great pitches to (Justin) Morneau and (Michael) Cuddyer," Shields said. "Morneau broke his bat on a changeup, and Cuddyer shattered his bat on a single."
Grant Balfour relieved Shields and got out of the jam, with a big helping hand from the Rays defense. With two on and one out, first baseman Carlos Peña made arguably the biggest defensive play of the game, diving to his left to snag a chopper down the line by Denard Span.
"Our guys do not surprise me on defense," manager Joe Maddon said. "They do this stuff all the time. And when they're not getting a hit, they go out and make a play."
Maddon said the Rays have accomplished several of the goals he discussed with the team in spring training, from playing better on the road (they're a majors-best 28-14), getting off to a good start (peaking at a majors-best 32-12) and overcoming struggles against left-handed starters (a majors-best 20-9). And Maddon said "we kept our heads above water" during a rough June, when they lost 14 of 25 games and fell from first place to third.
Said Maddon: "I can't ask any more of this group."
"We're in the hunt; that's where we want to be," Shields said. "We definitely can be better right now; we had a bad month of June. But the good news is we're starting July on the right foot. We've got to keep this roll going."
Joe Smith can be reached at email@example.com.