ST. PETERSBURG — Manager Joe Maddon said the selection of just two Rays All-Stars reflected more how his team stands out collectively, rather than individually.
Sunday's 9-2 win over the Royals served as a prime example.
There were stars for sure, with James Shields on the mound and Carlos Pena and Evan Longoria delivering the big hits.
But it was more fitting that four Rays reserves started, and contributed, to give Tampa Bay (55-32) as many victories as it had the entire 2002 season.
Unlike teams from the franchise's woeful past, this year's remarkable Rays, who boast the best record in baseball, can delve into their depth without a dropoff.
Taking to its theme of a "different bus driver every night," Tampa Bay won its season-high seventh straight game and 15th in its past 18 and was 4-1/2 games ahead of the Red Sox in the AL East pending Boston's late game at New York.
As they walked off the field Sunday, with many of the 20,587 fans standing, the Rays were just 15 wins shy of their all-time high (70) set in 2004 and on pace for the greatest turnaround in baseball history.
"On a championship-caliber team, you're going to have guys injured, you're going to have to have guys that are going to step in," backup catcher Shawn Riggans said. "Our backup players come in and it's like we don't miss a beat."
There was Gabe Gross, who leads the team with three walkoff hits, blasting a solo homer in the sixth. There was Willy Aybar, going 2-for-4 while making double plays routine filling in for Pena at first. And there was shortstop Ben Zobrist, knocking in the Rays' first run.
The offense, which has caught fire throughout the six-game homestand (6.3 runs per game, .290 batting average), gave Shields a three-run cushion by the third inning, and that's all he would need. Shields (7-5), who won his third straight, struck out four of the first five batters and eight total, getting ahead with his fastball and baffling lefties with his backdoor cutter.
"Pretty much a lot of my pitches were working today," said Shields, who gave up two runs in seven innings. "When we get runs like that, it's a lot easier to pitch."
The key outburst came in the third, when in back-to-back at-bats Pena hit a two-run double and Longoria smacked a two-run homer, his team-leading 16th of the season. The blast, hit off 2006 No. 1 pick Luke Hochevar (5-7), tied Longoria with 1994 rookie of the year Bob Hamelin for most homers before the All-Star break by a rookie in the past 20 years.
But with no Rays among the top five in the league in homers, RBIs, batting average or ERA, it continues to be a contribution-by-committee.
"Honestly, if you look up and down the lineup, you could probably send anyone right now" to the All-Star Game, Longoria said. "Even though the stats might not dictate it, just the big moments and things everyone has done, from top to bottom. There's not really one guy who's been the sure-fire All-Star. Everybody has pulled their weight."
Joe Smith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.