MINNEAPOLIS — As bad as they looked for as long as they did, the Rays are starting to feel better about themselves.
Saturday's 7-0 two-plus-hour rain-delayed win over the Twins was their third straight after winning four of their previous 17, and after almost losing their hold on the second wild card last week, they are now tied with the Rangers for the top spot.
"I think we're on our way,'' manager Joe Maddon said. "It's getting better. You still want more. But it's getting better.
"What I'm starting to see is a greater looseness about the group. I think they're starting to relax a bit, which is good. And once they do that we're going to start playing our typical game.''
Matt Moore, who worked three sharp innings before the rain, said it's obvious the mood has improved with the results, It certainly seemed that way before the game, as much of the team gathered in the clubhouse to watch the Alabama-Texas A&M football game and again after for the Floyd Mayweather-Canelo Alvarez fight.
"The overall demeanor in the clubhouse, the energy in the air, it's a lot better to be around,'' Moore said. "It's a lot easier to smile. It's a lot easier to cut up and be yourself.''
The Rays, 81-66 and one victory from their sixth straight winning season, got off to a quick start, taking a 4-0 lead while Moore was dealing on the mound.
But the weather was as much of a concern as the Twins, whom they have now beaten 11 straight times. So much so that Maddon said they considered starting a reliever then bringing Moore in after the expected delay, with the umpires eventually calling for the tarps after the Rays hit in the fourth. Maddon praised all parties for their handling of the situation, especially since had the game been called off it would have been replayed from the start, the Rays lead wiped out.
Moore, making his third start since coming off the disabled list, stayed warm for about the first 50 minutes of the delay but was done for the night well before play resumed 2 hours and 4 minutes later, having struck out five of the 13 batters he faced, allowing one hit while throwing 60 pitches. The Rays used five relievers to finish their team record-tying 15th shutout, Brandon Gomes awarded the win for a 1-2-3 fourth inning.
"Those were difficult circumstances for the pitchers. I thought we did a great job with the bullpen,'' Maddon said. "Gomes really put some substance to the game, some structure, throwing strikes and getting quick outs.''
The Rays began crisply, scoring on a well-executed sequence in the second, Wil Myers doubling (dropping another ball just inside the rightfield line), going to third on a groundout and scoring on Sean Rodriguez's sac fly. They added another in the third, on a two-out double by Evan Longoria, then two more in the fourth on three straight singles and a sac fly. They added three after play resumed on a pair of doubles by Desmond Jennings. By the end of the chilly, damp night, Jennings, Longoria and Yunel Escobar had two hits apiece, and five different players drove in runs.
"We're playing better the last couple days, finding ways to win,'' said Jennings, his Alabama jersey hanging proudly in front of his locker. "We're hitting better. With guys on base, guys in scoring position, we're finding ways to get them in,''
Even after play resumed, Maddon said he kept going back up to his office to check the radar, getting conflicting reports on whether would be more rain, managing the bottom of the fourth and the fifth like late innings in case the game got called short after becoming official.
By the end of the night, the Rays caught Texas for the wild-card lead, stayed 1½ games ahead of the Indians and are three ahead of the Yankees (who lost again to the soon-to-be AL East champion Red Sox) and 3½ ahead of the Orioles and Royals.
"You just keep pushing and you come out on the other side, and we shall,' Maddon said.
After finishing up with the Twins today, the Rays play their next 11 games against three teams they are competing with: four at home with the Rangers and the Orioles, then three at the Yankees. They finish with three games at Toronto.
"Our schedule is difficult, no question, but that's a good thing, I think, because that should really bring out the best in us," Maddon said. "And I've said this since whenever, 'You've got to beat the best to be the best.' So we've got to beat these teams."
As rough as the previous three weeks were, Maddon claims they could be better for it — and better equipped to make a long postseason run.
"We come out on the proper side of this whole thing, it should set us up well going into October," Maddon said. "So there's a lot of potential positive benefits from all this, too.
"So I'm excited about it, I'm eager about it, I have a lot of faith in our guys. We've gone through a difficult stretch, now let's come out on the other side. And we keep pushing, so I like that. There's no giving up, there's no letting up."
There are usually two theories about teams that have to battle right to the end of the season to make the playoffs: that they are better for the momentum they carry, or worse off for the effort it took to get there.
"I don't know the answer," Maddon said. "I know we have a great challenge ahead of us. The thing I want to believe is that if we push through this, we're going to be ready and tested for that opening moment."
That moment could be brief, however, as the wild-card playoff is a one-game affair with even less margin for error.
"Regardless of how good you're playing, when it comes down to that point you've got to play good for that one game,'' Ben Zobrist said. "I think it could be very, very beneficial if we get hot because you feel hot for that game, and hopefully you get through that game and then you can maybe continue that through the first series."
Marc Topkin can be reached at [email protected]