ST. PETERSBURG — The tendency from the outside is to look at whom the Rays are beating, posting an asterisk as they've won seven of the first eight in a 14-game parade of the American League's three worst teams.
But inside the Rays clubhouse the focus is purely on what they are doing, and how they are doing it, Monday's 7-4 victory over Minnesota the latest example of their solid play in the recent stretch against the Astros, White Sox and Twins.
"I feel like it really doesn't matter who we're playing," All-Star Ben Zobrist said. "We feel pretty confident about the way we're playing."
Roberto Hernandez wasn't nearly as sharp as the starters before him, but the glovework was good and the offense rallied before a Trop gathering of 11,516, Yunel Escobar and Zobrist homering in the seventh to put the Rays ahead to stay.
"We're playing some of our best baseball, probably our best baseball right now," manager Joe Maddon said. "And if we could just stay in this flow, which I think we're capable of, the key ingredients are starting pitching, defense, not expanding our strike zone."
The win was their fifth straight and 12th of 15 overall as they improved to a season-high 10 games over .500 at 50-40. And, having been last in the AL East on June 23, they moved into sole possession of second place — and the second wild card.
It's their third quickest march to 50 wins in franchise history, getting there faster only in — no surprise — their two AL East championship seasons: 82 games in 2008 (when they won 97) and 83 games in 2010 (when they won 96).
"Just all the way across the board, offensively and pitching and defensively, everything is just kind of clicking right now," Zobrist said.
Hernandez was not sharp, his sinker not sinking, and was somewhat fortunate to get through his six innings with only three runs as the Twins rapped out eight hits, and hit several other balls hard for outs, while a 2-0 lead disappeared.
"The ball was up, flat and no movement," Hernandez said. "I don't know what happened."
The Rays tied it in the fifth, then made reliever Alex Torres the winner with a quick-strike attack in the seventh.
Escobar crushed an 0-and-1 pitch from Samuel Deduno into the leftfield seats then, after sizzling Desmond Jennings (.424 in his past eight games) tripled and Luke Scott, who homered in the first, struck out against rookie reliever Caleb Thielbar, Zobrist hit a two-run shot to left, the first of his six homers to come right-handed.
And, knowing how tough they've had it and what's ahead after the All-Star break (starting with a 10-game trip to Toronto, Boston and New York), Maddon said the current degree of difficulty should not be a factor.
"Everybody's got to play the same group of teams, everybody gets a shot at different groups," Maddon said. "Right now, I just think we're playing well. I know there's a lot being made about the schedule right now, but I don't believe in that stuff.
"Minnesota's got a very proud tradition, they've got some really good players on the field right there and they've got a really good pitcher pitching against us (Monday night). So I really like the way we played."
Marc Topkin can be reached at [email protected]