ST. PETERSBURG — The theme coming into this series was where Lou Piniella had been. But it has clearly become more a story about where the Rays are going.
Piniella's Cubs still have the best record in baseball, but the Rays have been the best team in the building, scoring a second straight victory on Wednesday, 5-4, before another roaring Tropicana Field crowd of 31,496 and a national ESPN audience.
"It is significant and I think for us it validates that we are playing well and it validates that we are a good team," manager Joe Maddon said. "When you go through these situations where you are attempting to grow, you think you're good and you think you're better, but then you have to go out there and actually show it.
"It's not about coming close and coming up short and always saying, 'What if,' and 'We just missed,' and whatever. You have to actually do it to get to that next level and we need confidence to do that. And you gain confidence by games like tonight."
That may not be all they gained in another tense finish. They combined an opportunistic offense (five runs off Cubs ace Carlos Zambrano on six singles and a double, plus four walks), a good-enough start from Andy Sonnanstine (who won his team-high eighth) and more tremendous relief work from J.P. Howell and Dan Wheeler to get to the ninth with a 5-3 lead. Troy Percival opened it by allowing a homer and a walk, then closed it with two flyouts and a called third strike on Kosuke Fukudome.
Still, the Rays improved to 42-29, matching their franchise high at 13 games over .500 and on pace for a stunning 96 victories, as they won the 12th series in their past 16 with a chance for the sweep tonight. They remained two behind Boston in the AL East and moved three ahead of Oakland for the wild card, and each day can think a little more about what might be.
"Our goal was what, .500, at the beginning of the year?" Howell said. "We didn't expect this to happen, but we knew it could. And we know what could happen if we keep this up."
Or, as Percival said, "We can validate all year long until we're in October. We're a good team. Everybody knows we're a good team now. And we're not sneaking up on anybody anymore."
Sonnanstine was best at what he called "damage control," getting out of most of the trouble he got into, such as allowing only one run after loading the bases with no outs in the fifth. And Howell, whom Maddon calls a legitimate candidate, with Scott Kazmir, to be an All-Star, did another fine job.
What Piniella hoped would be a happy homecoming has turned into something of a time warp, as he has had to trudge to the mound to make pitching changes, deal with injuries (Zambrano, who left with shoulder discomfort and is headed for an MRI exam, plus outfielders Jim Edmonds, foot, and Reed Johnson, back) and watch his 45-27 team waste key chances.
"It was an exciting ballgame and we got beat," Piniella said. "That's all we got."
Marc Topkin can be reached at [email protected]