ST. PETERSBURG — The Rays were looking good as they headed out after Thursday's 7-5 win on the most significant road trip in their history, the players and staff (including the decidedly unhip 77-year-old Don Zimmer) sporting trendy Ed Hardy designer T-shirts.
More important, feeling good.
Even with the unnecessary drama of a five-run Yankees rally in the ninth inning before 26,080 at Tropicana Field, the Rays were relaxed — if not relieved — after losing the previous two nights (and losing two games off their lead) as they head to Toronto, Boston and New York with more to gain, or lose, than ever before.
"Just a huge win for us to be able to go on the road after getting this win and feeling good about ourselves," starter Scott Kazmir said. "It felt like we had to pull this one out no matter what it took. … Stopping it there and pulling this last game off gave us a little bit more momentum, a little more confidence."
Kazmir did a lot, as an ace should, allowing only one hit over six shutout innings. Just as important was an offense that came back to life against "ashamed" Yankees starter Darrell Rasner. The Rays scored five in the second and rapped 14 hits total, including a career-high-matching four from Dioner Navarro and two big ones from Willy Aybar. The defense was back to being tidy after a couple of off-nights.
And nothing was bigger than the one pitch thrown by Dan Wheeler, who got Xaiver Nady to fly out for the final out after Jason Hammel nearly gave away a 7-0 lead by allowing ninth-inning homers to Derek Jeter (his 204th) and Alex Rodriguez (his 550th, and a mammoth shot off the D-ring catwalk).
The Rays (a major-league-best 85-53) extended their AL East lead to 3½ games over idle Boston, which opens a weekend series tonight in Texas. And, with wild-card runnerup Minnesota's loss, the Rays moved two steps closer to securing a playoff berth.
As much as manager Joe Maddon downplayed any concern about the two losses — "It's so cool that two games is now considered a losing streak. That's awesome. It indicates how far we've come." — he also acknowledged the benefits of the win.
"It's the confidence that's gained, that good feeling that you're able to retain," Maddon said. "That's the vital part of it."
Kazmir had walks in each of his first five innings but didn't allow a hit until the fifth, when leadoff man Cody Ransom's blooper to right landed just inches in front of sliding rightfielder Gabe Gross' glove. Kazmir attacked with his fastball, mixed in his changeup and slider, and finished with six zeroes, seven strikeouts, five walks, 98 pitches and his 11th win.
It wasn't as relaxing as it should have been from there as Hammel struggled and the Yankees — whose postseason hopes dimmed further — rallied, but given the way the past two nights had gone, the Rays were happy with how turned out.
"It was just two games," Maddon said. "We played better tonight, we pitched better tonight, and everybody feels good about a win."
Even more so as they pulled on their fancy colorful threads.
"Hey," Kazmir said, "you look good, you feel good."