MINNEAPOLIS — As well as the Rays had been playing for the previous month, the All-Star break seemed particularly ill-timed. As they reassembled Friday after four days off for assorted activities, manager Joe Maddon could only hope they would resume the same approach that had worked so well, ignoring the enormity of their challenge in moving up in the standings and focus on playing well each night, with the goal of winning series.
For openers, Friday could not have gone much better.
They got big hits from two of their key guys, Evan Longoria and Ben Zobrist. They got a good-enough start from Alex Cobb. They got 10 outs from their bullpen, the most important from Brad Boxberger.
And they got a victory, 6-2 over the Twins.
"It was a good night," Maddon said. "I was really impressed with our guys with the game we played after that many days off. We pretty much picked up where we had left off. It was a good game, we played well, there was high energy in the dugout."
The win was the Rays' 21st in 32 games and 12th in 16, as they improved to 45-53, moving to within 8½ games of American League East-leading Baltimore, which opened a challenging west coast trip with a walkoff loss at Oakland. The Rays were eight games behind the Mariners, who played late, for the second AL wild-card spot.
"The point is we won the game,'' Longoria said. "And if we can continue to do the things that we've been doing, it's going to be a fun second half.''
The Rays took a 3-0 lead in the third on a bases-loaded double off the right-centerfield wall by Longoria, who spoke before the game of shaking his season-long struggles.
"It was a good time right there for me to be able to do that and kind of have a renewed slate in the second half, to start off that way,'' Longoria said.
With the three RBIs, Longoria moved to within one of tying Carl Crawford's franchise record of 592. And with the double, Longoria matched Zobrist in moving with one of Crawford's record of 215.
Cobb, working with major-league debuting catcher Curt Casali and working without much success the split-changeup he relies on, gave much of the margin right back, allowing a two-run homer on a two-out, two-strike pitch to Trevor Plouffe.
"There were situations where I'd feel great and then it would leave me for a batter or two,'' Cobb said. "All-in all, a battling kind of night.''
But the Rays expanded their lead in the fifth with some hustle and muscle. First Kevin Kiermaier, topped a ball in front of the plate and raced down the line, called out, but then safe after a replay challenge.
After the first of two sacrifice bunts by Desmond Jennings, Zobrist, who like David Price has been the subject of trade rumors, homered to right, continuing a sizzling 16-game stretch (23-for-64) in which he hiked his average 23 points to .267.
Kiermaier was the catalyst again as they added a run in the seventh.
Cobb worked into the sixth, allowing two runs on five hits, but didn't look sharp, with only one 1-2-3 inning while throwing 99 pitches. Plus, he walked two and hit two.
He left with two on and two out in the sixth, Maddon concerned of dramatics from former mate Sam Fuld. Boxberger came in and walked him, but then got out of the bases-loaded jam by getting Danny Santana to ground out. "That,'' Maddon said, "was the tipping point.'' Boxberger worked the seventh, Grant Balfour a quick eighth and Jake McGee the ninth.
Like Longoria, Cobb said the bottom line was most important:
"It definitely starts the momentum we need to get going. I think that a loss in this type of situation would be extremely more difficult than a loss in the beginning of the year was to handle. I think the importance of not having a loss today was of more magnitude than having the actual win. We got the ball rolling in the right direction. And now we have to keep the momentum going on this trip.''
Contact Marc Topkin at [email protected] Follow @TBTimes_Rays.