TORONTO — As warmups go, Sunday couldn't have worked out much better for the Rays in an easy 9-4 win over the Blue Jays. They scored early and often in racking up a season-high 18 hits, and got David Price his American League-leading 17th win and most of their key players some welcome rest.
Now they come home for a key, if not critical, series with the first-place-but-flailing Yankees with the chance to prove, despite all they've been through, they are good enough to win the American League East for a third time in five years.
"Absolutely, no doubt we can catch the Yankees," manager Joe Maddon said. "We've got to catch Baltimore first."
The East has turned into an unexpected three-team race, especially with the Orioles taking two of three in New York over the weekend. The Yankees' lead, 10 games in mid July, is down to two over the Orioles, and the Rays are 3½ back. (In the race for the second wild card spot behind Oakland, the Orioles lead the Rays by 1½, and the teams play six more times.)
So with three games against the Yankees this week, and their final three (of the regular season) at New York on Sept. 14-16, the Rays see an opportunity to be seized, starting with today's holiday matinee.
"It's huge," today's starter, James Shields, said. "Obviously we want to try and sweep them; there's no doubt about it. But we've got to try to definitely win the series and at least gain a game or two on them."
The Rays need to keep pitching as well as they have, starting with Shields squaring off with Yankees ace CC Sabathia, then Alex Cobb and Matt Moore to follow. "I thrive on these kind of games," Shields said. "And I want to be in these kind of games."
And the Rays can only hope to keep hitting as they did Sunday, a vast departure from their usual minimal output. Every starter in the order had a hit.
"In the obvious sense, it feels good to be able to go out and put up a bunch of runs," third baseman Evan Longoria said. "It just kind of reminds us, one, how few and far between games like this are for us, and how much more you want to do it on a daily basis, and how fun the game is when you do it and how much easier it makes it for the guy on the mound."
The Rays got started quickly. Desmond Jennings, hitting .323 since Longoria returned Aug. 7 from hamstring trouble, led off with the first of his three hits and scored on Longoria's double.
They broke it open with a six-run, six-hit, 10-batter second off struggling Jays lefty Ricky Romero. New addition Ben Francisco started it with a homer, Jose Molina chipped in a key hit and Ben Zobrist delivered a two-run single, making it 7-0.
"Up and down the lineup," Maddon said. "On and on."
Price wasn't particularly sharp, walking three in the bottom of the second, but he didn't allow a hit until the fourth and any runs until the seventh, when he left after 105 pitches.
These three games against the Yankees won't make the Rays' season, and even getting swept probably wouldn't break it, but they seem well aware of the possibility before them.
"We're right in the thick of it, and it's just where we want to be," Longoria said. "We have plenty of games left against the people we need to have them against to prove that we're deserving of a playoff spot. So it's going to be fun."
Marc Topkin can be reached at [email protected]