ST. PETERSBURG — So much for a letdown.
With the best-in-the-majors Rays coming off an emotional sweep of the Red Sox, manager Joe Maddon said his club would have to "make some of our own adrenaline" to make up for the expected smaller crowd and the sub-.500 Royals coming into town Friday.
Turns out, all they needed was starter Edwin Jackson to set the tone, which he did in the Rays' 11-2 win over Kansas City. Jackson took a two-hitter into the eighth inning, and the bats did the rest as the Rays delivered plenty of fireworks in front of special guest Chris Rock and a Fourth of July crowd of 16,830 at Tropicana Field.
With the victory, Tampa Bay (53-32) stays three games ahead of second-place Boston in the American League East. Since spring training, Maddon has preached to his team to play with the same kind of preparation, focus and intensity, "regardless of date." It will become an increasingly important message as 24 of the Rays' next 32 games come against teams now under .500.
"It was huge for us, coming off a series like that, just to let everyone know we (didn't) really come in on chill mode," said Jackson (5-6), who matched his season win total from last year. "We're still being aggressive, regardless of the team. We are going out to win every game."
The key for Jackson on Friday was his aggressiveness and strike-throwing. The 24-year-old right-hander, who now has three straight quality starts, was in control from the get-go. After giving up a leadoff single to David DeJesus, the Royals went hitless until the seventh inning, when Mark Grudzielanek ripped a solo homer to end Jackson's shutout bid. Jackson matched a season high with eight innings pitched, and with his fastball command and composure on the mound resembling the dominance from his first two starts, the Royals left just one runner on base.
"I think he got to the point where his confidence is way up there," catcher Dioner Navarro said. "Like, 'I can do this any day.' "
It sure helped that his offense gave him a hand. The Rays scored three runs in the first inning on four hits and two sacrifice flies off starter Brian Bannister (7-8). What had to be a good sign for the Rays was that, other than another multihit game from rookie Evan Longoria (3-for-5), it was Carl Crawford (3-for-5, 2 RBIs) and Carlos Pena (2-for-4, five RBIs) who were offensive stars.
Crawford singled and stole second (his 22nd) in the first before Pena's RBI single. Pena added a sacrifice fly in the third and a three-run homer in the fifth, which gave him almost as many RBIs as he had in the past seven games (six).
Tampa Bay tagged the Royals bullpen for four more runs in the eighth, with Crawford working an impressive at-bat into a two-run single. Crawford scored when Royals reliever Robinson Tejada dropped a popup — the third Kansas City error of the game.
"We made it real easy for them," Royals manager Trey Hillman said. "They've got a good club, obviously — they've got the best record — but we did a lot of things really poorly that made their job real easy."
Joe Smith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.