BOSTON — Before his Rays started knocking the ball all over the old ballpark, bouncing them off walls and into gaps, and before they hung the big white numbers on the green scoreboard, Joe Maddon noticed how quiet, how focused, how intense and intent they were as they prepared for Saturday's Fenway Park matinee.
"(Saturday) was different, just a higher level of readiness," Maddon said afterward. "I don't know why. Maybe (Friday's) game stuck with us. Playing the Red Sox. National TV. There's a lot of factors. Our guys like this moment. We like playing under these circumstances."
For early May, anyway, they really couldn't have had a better time, pounding Boston 14-5 and earning the chance to win yet another series from the Sox in tonight's ESPN finale.
Evan Longoria led the way, again, knocking in five more runs, giving him what even he called a "pretty unbelievable" 44 through 32 games (on a pace for 223). Carl Crawford had three hits, struggling B.J. Upton and Pat Burrell had a pair apiece and every starter had at least one as they totaled 17 in a game started by typically tough Boston lefty Jon Lester.
In their past 10 games, the Rays (15-17) have averaged 6.9 runs, hit .294 and won seven. In their first 22, they averaged 4.4 runs, hit .260 and won eight.
"Our offense has really started to go in the right direction," Longoria said.
"This is more what it's supposed to look like," Maddon said. "Everyone contributed (Saturday)."
They started quickly in front of the Fox TV cameras and a broadcast crew that identified them as Tampa and their second baseman as Akamora, rather than Akinori or Iwamura, as Longoria hit a two-run first-inning homer that bounced off the top of the centerfield wall.
They got better from there, batting around in back-to-back innings. They scored six on eight hits (more than they'd had in 10 full games) while sending 11 to the plate in the fifth, then added five the next inning while batting nine, taking repeated advantage of suspect defense by shortstop Julio Lugo, a former Ray.
"That was an outburst for sure," Carlos Peña said. "But that's what we're capable of."
It's risky to put limits on what Longoria, the 23-year-old sophomore sensation, is capable of.
His 44 RBIs are the most for any player through 32 games since Roy Campanella had 45 for the 1953 Dodgers.
After his two-run homer (his 11th), two-run double (his 15th) and sac fly, he has a .405 average, five homers and 21 RBIs in nine games against Boston. Overall, he's hitting .367 with a .767 slugging percentage and 1.182 OPS.
Longoria said his swing is "right where I want to be, and the guys behind me hitting helps a lot with the pitches that I'm getting. It's a credit to them and a credit to everyone else, too."
Others were more than happy to rave about him.
"He's just so locked in," Maddon said. "Every at-bat's a quality at-bat. He's not throwing anything away. I think he's really done a much better job with two strikes, and it's paying off. All parts of the field. …
"He's becoming more of a complete hitter this year compared to what we'd seen last year."
Marc Topkin can be reached at email@example.com.
In the pink
In addition to swinging pink bats, some Rays will wear Reebok cleats with pink stripes tonight as part of MLB's Mother's Day initiative to raise awareness and money for breast cancer research. But it almost didn't happen. 4C