ST. PETERSBURG — The Rays are sliding, all right, kicking up dirt on everyone as they tumble.
Just not in the standings, however.
Following Sunday's 8-4 win over the Baltimore Orioles, in which rookie Matt Moore allowed only one earned run through six innings, Tampa Bay (31-23) was alone in first place in the mosh pit that is the American League East.
The Rays got there the same way Elliot Johnson slid into second base to break up a potential inning-ending double play in the fifth: playing hard-nosed baseball and trading glamour for grit.
"That was the only thing that kept that inning rolling, a heads-up baserunning play on his part and everything good happens after that," Rays manager Joe Maddon said of Johnson.
With one out and the score tied at 2, Rays catcher Jose Molina bounced to Orioles third baseman Steve Tolleson for what looked to be a twin killing. But Johnson went hard into second baseman Robert Andino, who never attempted the relay throw to get Molina. Following a walk to Carlos Peña, B.J. Upton doubled home two runs to give the Rays a lead they never relinquished.
The Rays tacked on four runs in the sixth, a leadoff double by Ben Zobrist followed by three singles, an error and Peña's sacrifice fly.
But for a Rays team that hit only .165 (30-for-182) during the 2-4 homestand, it was hustle and not muscle that enabled them to win the three-game series against the Orioles. On Sunday, they scored their first five runs on three hits, two Baltimore errors and a sacrifice fly.
"Absolutely, that's the way Joe wants us to play the game and that's what we do," Upton said.
Moore (2-5, 4.45 ERA), who had opened the homestand with a career-high seven innings but lost 2-1 to the Chicago White Sox, scattered seven hits Sunday and worked out of jams in the second, third, fourth and fifth innings.
"I think that's my go-to right now, as far as when there is something going on, just taking a look and realizing there's only a runner on first and there's still an 0-0 count on this guy, so we can get him to roll over into maybe a double play or something," Moore said.
Despite nine players on the disabled list, including third baseman Evan Longoria and leftfielder Desmond Jennings, who is scheduled to rejoin the club Tuesday in New York, the Rays have managed to "tread water," as Maddon says.
Only three games separate the Rays from the last-place Boston and Toronto. The Orioles are one game back in second place and the Yankees are 11/2 games off the pace heading into the three-game series against the Rays.
"Our pitching has permitted us to not hit and still keep our heads above water," Maddon said. "No question."
Almost to a man, the Rays believe any team will have a difficult time breaking away from the pack in the AL East. If so, what team is better equipped for the grind than the Rays?
"We definitely know how to grind," Upton said.
The Rays way is simple, according to Johnson.
"We're going to pitch, we're going to play defense," he said. "And we're going to break up some double plays."