ST. PETERSBURG — If this truly is the series of series for the Rays, then they certainly started it off well.
The pitching, led by starter Alex Cobb, who deemed these three games with the Twins the most important of the year, was solid.
The offense was explosive.
The result was an 11-4 victory in front of 12,108 at Tropicana Field on Monday night.
"We needed one like that, for sure," manager Kevin Cash said.
The Rays (69-70) are now three games behind the Twins (71-66), who hold the second of two wild-card spots in the American League.
It didn't help the Rays that three of the five teams between them and the Twins won, but that is better than losing ground.
And after losing two of three to the lowly White Sox over the weekend in Chicago, the Rays needed to play with a sense of urgency, and they did.
"The guys understand what's at stake this series," Cash said.
Monday's game kicked off a stretch in which the Rays face only playoff contenders during the final four weeks of the season. They can no longer afford to drop a series. And when in position for a sweep, they have to sweep.
"These are all must-win games," tonight's starter Jake Odorizzi said, "and we have to do our best to win the majority of them to get in the playoffs."
Cobb did his job. He allowed one run on three hits in 52/3 innings. He was lifted with Joe Mauer on third base and two outs in the sixth with the Rays up 2-1 when Cash called for Dan Jennings to set up a lefty-on-lefty matchup with Jorge Polanco.
Cobb was not happy, turning his back to Cash as Cash walked to the mound. But Jennings got Polanco to ground out to second to preserve the lead.
The Rays bats then went to work, scoring their most runs at home since June 23 when they scored 15 against Baltimore.
Kevin Kiermaier, Corey Dickerson and Logan Morrison each had three hits.
"That was huge," Kiermaier said. "One through nine, throughout the whole lineup, everyone did their job. That was a game we needed."
The Rays also cobbled together a pair of four-run innings that did not include a home run.
It had been 74 games since they scored that many runs in an inning without the long ball.
"We'll take them however we can get them," Cash said, adding, "We have to find ways to score runs without home runs."
Of equal importance was their ability to add to their lead.
A home run by Dickerson in the second and a two-out RBI single by Evan Longoria in the third gave the Rays a 2-1 lead.
They padded that lead with a four-run sixth that included a two-out, two-run single by Kiermaier.
Then, after Morrison's 36th home run of the year made it 7-1 in the sixth, the Rays added to that lead with another four-run outburst in the eighth.
A pinch-hit single by Trevor Plouffe scored one run, and Longoria's two-run single kept it going.
"Huge game for us," Kiermaier said. "Hope the big bats come back out (tonight) the same way."