BALTIMORE — They still have a long way to go, and that has to be said first.
But after slugging their way to a 12-7 victory Sunday, making it three out of four over the Orioles and 11 of 18 overall, the Rays are starting quietly to believe they still can win enough to keep their season of great expectations from being lost.
"The way it feels right now, playing great defense, pitching well, hitting well, it just feels like the Rays again," starter Alex Cobb said. "It's still early, there's still a lot of baseball to go. The (American League) East, no one has separated themselves. The vibe in here is good right now."
A lack of offense has been the primary reason for their majors-worst 35-49 record, but through the most arid stretches manager Joe Maddon insisted they had more in them, and Sunday it — finally — showed.
The 12 runs were their most since mid April, including a season-best seven in the sixth inning, as they rapped 18 hits overall, 11 for extra bases, including five homers. Matt Joyce led the way with a team record-tying five hits, including two home runs, and 12 total bases. Ben Zobrist, Logan Forsythe (for the second straight day) and rookie Kevin Kiermaier (his sixth) also homered.
"Looking at the math, the math is going to come back to these guys, because our guys are good," Maddon said. "They're good offensive players, so I'd like to believe you're going to see some really substantial All-Star performances in the second half offensively."
Maddon, uncharacteristically, put all but a "must-win" label on Sunday's game, challenging the players to take the four-game series as a true sign of progress. It started as a back-and-forth contest, the teams swapping leads and wasting chances, the Orioles going ahead 4-3 in the fifth on, of all things, a passed ball as a Cobb pitch went between catcher Jose Molina's legs.
But then the Rays responded with their most explosive inning of the season to go up 10-4. Eleven batters produced seven runs on seven hits, the biggest arguably a two-out, two-run double by James Loney off lefty reliever Brian Matusz, in between homers by Kiermaier and Forsythe. The bullpen finished, though Cesar Ramos made it closer than they'd hoped.
"We have not really done that often this year," Maddon said. "It's very wonderful to see. Balls are falling in, we're missing defenders, hitting balls over the wall, good at-bats.
"That's when you get that little swagger working among the group, and that's nice to get back."
Third baseman Evan Longoria had mentioned that Sunday morning, that they had been playing more their "style and caliber" of baseball and are feeling better about themselves as they head next to New York then Detroit. "Our confidence as a group is probably at an all-time high for this season," he said.
Maddon had noticed an encouraging change in their clubhouse demeanor as well, something seemingly slight but significant: "The laughter pregame is a little bit more sincere as opposed to being feigned in any way."
Even in winning 11 of 18, the Rays are still at the bottom of the standings (matched by Arizona). But they've cut the margin to the AL East-leading Blue Jays over the past 2½ weeks from 15 games to 10 and are the same amount behind the Mariners for the second wild card.
It was just three years ago that they were nine games out of a playoff spot in September and made it in, so as they look around at the end of June they feel they have real hope.
"We're no strangers to making runs," Maddon said. "We're definitely in for the long haul right here."
"Anything's possible," Joyce said. "We've got a little bit of a ways to go. But we're playing better baseball and having a little bit of fun."
Contact Marc Topkin at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @TBTimes_Rays.
By the numbers
For Matt Joyce:
5 Hits, tying club record for a game (done seven times)
12 Total bases, tying club record for a game and setting team record for a road game
For the team:
5 Home runs, one shy of club record
6 Doubles, a season high and two shy of club record
7 Runs in the sixth inning, a season high and four shy of club record
11 Extra bases, a season high and one shy of club record
38 Total bases, a season high and three shy of club record