CLEVELAND — Rays manager Joe Maddon is usually all about the process, the how sometimes mattering even more than the what, and he had plenty to discuss after Thursday's 7-4 matinee win over the Indians.
There were seven solid innings from starter James Shields, plus a pair of pickoffs. A faith-rewarding clutch hit by shortstop Reid Brignac. The perfectly executed squeeze bunt by second baseman Elliot Johnson. A pair of ninth-inning runs delivered by third baseman Evan Longoria. More solid work from the bullpen.
But Maddon also acknowledged the significance of the accomplishment, as the Rays came into Cleveland, where they had lost 18 straight until winning twice in July, and took two of three from the surprising Indians, who have the best record in the American League and top home mark in the majors.
"If you're looking for a little bit of a litmus test, there it was," Maddon said. "Where are we at right now? How we doing? Played three good games in Baltimore, come here and lose a really tough game on the first night and then come back and beat them two games in their own yard, which is not an easy thing to do this year, or historically for us. So for a whole bunch of different reasons, I'm really pleased with our guys."
Since a 1-8 start that seems forever ago, the Rays are a major-league-best 21-7 and alone atop the AL East. And — though they'll see the Yankees for the first time on Monday and have faced only one other above-.500 team (Angels) — they are starting to believe in the possibilities.
"The way we're playing right now, I think we can go and play against anybody," reliever Joel Peralta said. "The last couple weeks we've finally put the good hitting, defense and pitching together, which didn't happen early in the season. And the bullpen has been really good, and it was supposed to be the question mark of the team.
"Definitely, it's been fun. It's been awesome. We can compete with anybody right now."
Added DH Johnny Damon, a veteran of seven playoff teams, "I like what I see."
The Rays won Thursday's game their way: a big game from their starter and lots of little things all around the field.
Shields ran his winning streak to four over his past six starts, with a 1.33 ERA along the way, by blanking the Indians through five innings. And when they scored a couple of runs off him in the sixth, he took care of ending the rally himself, picking Orlando Cabrera off second. After he nabbed Michael Brantley earlier, Shields shared the major-league lead with Oakland's Brett Anderson with five.
"They were big," Shields said.
Maddon has remained confident in Brignac, who was hitting .183 overall and had gone a team-record 104 at-bats without an extra-base hit, and the young shortstop delivered with a two-run double that sparked their four-run second.
"Hopefully this will get me going," Brignac said. "I know I hadn't had an extra-base hit all season, so a little monkey's been on my back."
The Rays added to the lead in the fifth when Johnson delivered — "beautifully" — on Maddon's go-to play, the squeeze bunt with men on first and third and one out. Then Longoria, hit by a pitch for the second straight game, delivered two more runs with a ninth-inning double. And Peralta and Kyle Farnsworth teamed for the final six outs.
"To be a playoff team, which we believe we are, you can't beat yourself," Maddon said. "You have to do the little things well."