ST. PETERSBURG — Carl Crawford's legs, and the major-league record-tying six bases he stole with them, were the hot topic in Sunday's 5-3 victory.
But it was the other things the Rays did — how they moved runners, scored runs and got outs — in taking the third of four games from the Red Sox, and winning their first series since opening week, that has them confident they're — finally — off and running.
"It definitely was a big series for us," Crawford said. "Hopefully, it's the start of something."
What the Rays accomplished was important, in terms of improving their record (11-15) and increasing their confidence, while reminding the Red Sox — as if a 5-2 mark against them weren't enough — that they're going to remain a threat.
"We just took three out of four from a pretty darn good team," closer Troy Percival said.
More significant was how.
First, they played with more intensity. Whether it was a product of the competition, as some players said, or the large Tropicana Field crowds, as manager Joe Maddon strategically suggested, it's something they have to maintain, especially in a rugged stretch that includes upcoming visits to New York and Boston.
"We just have to come out and play with that fire every night," shortstop Jason Bartlett said. "You saw that last year, and for some reason we haven't had that lately. If it's the Red Sox that puts that fire under us, then so be it. We need it right now."
Second, they played more what they consider their kind of game.
"It's starting to get back to a more familiar feel around here," Percival said.
The starting pitching was good, with James Shields, despite a 30-pitch, bases-loaded-one-out mess of a first, making good use of his rediscovered changeup and working solidly into the eighth.
The bullpen got the outs when it mattered, Dan Wheeler cleaning up after J.P. Howell allowed Kevin Youkilis' two-run, two-out homer in the eighth, and Percival cruising through the ninth with his first 1-2-3 inning of the season.
And they scored the old-fashioned way, working hard, running free as they set a team mark with eight steals and executing well.
They broke a 1-1 tie in the fourth when the invaluable Bartlett brought in Ben Zobrist from third with a broken-bat single — "Whatever it takes," Bartlett said — then went hard into second on Michel Hernandez's grounder, preventing a double play and allowing Akinori Iwamura to score.
And after the Sox closed to 4-3 on Youkilis' homer in the eighth, the Rays hustled to another run. Bartlett singled, went to second on Hernandez's bunt, then made a huge play — "the big one," Maddon said — by stealing third with two outs. He scored on Crawford's infield single, the fourth hit of his remarkable day.
"This is the kind of baseball that we know how to play, and if we can get back to that we're going to win a lot of ball games," Shields said. "I think our team realizes playing small ball like that is what we're all about. … I think the way we've been playing, we've been trying to go for that big hit. Hopefully we start to realize how we won this ball game and keep it going."
"It's just good baseball," centerfielder B.J. Upton said.
The Sox (15-10), predictably, shrugged off the lost weekend. "I think everyone is over this," second baseman Dustin Pedroia said. "I don't think anybody's hitting the panic button because we got beat three out of four."
Maddon religiously downplays the significance of any single game but allowed Sunday that it was important to win this one, ending a six-series losing streak.
He attributed the improved play to several factors: increased intensity and improved attitude, the chance to come home after the long road trip and play without the "distractions" of nightly award ceremonies, and the energy they get from the "rabid avid fan base" at the Trop.
"I think what you saw three out of the last four days," Maddon said, "was more reminiscent of what we're supposed to look like."
Marc Topkin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.