ST. PETERSBURG — As an event, it was historic. With a thrilling 8-3 win Thursday that completed a sweep of Lou Piniella's Cubs, the Rays moved to a team-record 14 games over .500, logged their first sweep of the majors' best team and drew their largest midweek crowds in 10 years.
But inside the home clubhouse, even after the dramatics of a seven-run seventh-inning rally sparked by Carl Crawford's grand slam, the focus wasn't on the accomplishments. If anything, it was more a quiet sense of confidence and belief that just maybe it wasn't as much of an event as the data suggested.
"It just goes to show what kind of team we have, that we keep playing hard for nine innings,'' Crawford said. "We're just trying to position ourselves as one of the elite teams right now. …
"We've been playing good, and it seems like the question that always gets asked is, 'Do you think you guys are just as good as the best teams?' After winning three games like this, it would be hard to argue we're not one of the good teams in the league.''
Certainly not by the numbers, as the Rays improved to 43-29, with only the Cubs (45-28) and Red Sox (46-29) better. Nor the notes, as, among other things, it was the third time they've swept a first-place team and fifth sweep overall this season (and the first time the Cubs lost three straight).
"It validates what we've been doing," manager Joe Maddon said.
James Shields, making his first start in nine days, battled into the seventh, but the Cubs had just gone ahead 3-1 (and could have had more had Grant Balfour not gotten two huge outs) before the Rays rallied.
And all you need to know about how well it's going for them (and how badly for the Cubs) is this: The Rays scored their first five runs and took only two swings.
How? Facing Carlos Marmol, who came in leading all major-league relievers with 63 strikeouts, Willy Aybar walked on six pitches (taking two strikes), Dioner Navarro fouled off a pitch and walked on four more, Gabe Gross was hit with a two-strike pitch, and so was Akinori Iwamura, forcing in one run.
Piniella brought in Scott Eyre, who had allowed one run all season (0.87 ERA), four hits to lefties and hadn't given up a home run in more than a year (205 batters).
Crawford took one pitch and knocked the next over the rightfield fence. Three more hits gave the Rays two more runs.
"Not too good," Piniella said. "That was a horrible inning, wasn't it?"
It turned out to be a horrible homecoming for Piniella ("Bragging rights," Crawford said.) And perhaps a national coming-out party for the Rays.
Maddon called it one of their three biggest wins of the season, on a short list with the May 8 extra-inning victory in Toronto, to win the series after being swept in Boston; and the May 19 extra-inning win in Oakland after losing two straight in St. Louis on the final pitch.
"This matters," Maddon said. "Tonight matters. When you're playing a team of that caliber under these conditions, they grab a lead and you know they wanted to leave here with at least one, so you really have to battle through it, and we did. I'm so proud of our guys and how they handled that."
Marc Topkin can be reached at [email protected]