ST. PETERSBURG — The Rays don't know what will happen on their upcoming six-game road trip to New York and Boston, which third baseman Evan Longoria calls a "make-or-break stretch" and "pretty definitive of what happens the rest of the year."
"It's huge," veteran Johnny Damon said.
But considering their large uphill climb to the postseason — the Rays trail the wild-card-leading Yankees by 8 1/2 and the AL East-leading Red Sox by 9 1/2 — they couldn't have asked for more of a momentum booster than a four-game sweep of the Royals, clinched with Thursday's 4-1 win in front of 13,942 at Tropicana Field.
Energized by Wednesday night's historic ninth-inning comeback, Tampa Bay displayed the kind of baseball that it believes can get it back in the race, from solid pitching to sparkling defense, while blending timely hitting with aggressiveness on the bases. The Rays (63-54), who picked up their first four-game sweep at the Trop in more than six years, have won 10 of their past 14.
"We've gotten back to playing the way that we need to play to win games," Longoria said. "We talk about it all the time; we're not a team that's going to go out and hit three three-run home runs and win a game like that. But it's pretty exciting to see us playing up to our potential right now."
It all started with right-hander Jeff Niemann, who continued his impressive roll since coming off the disabled list in early June (6-0, 2.17 ERA in nine starts).
He wasn't as sharp as he has been, tying a season high with nine hits (all singles), but he battled through 6 1/3 innings of one-run ball.
Niemann got arguably the game's biggest out in the sixth, after loading the bases with two outs for Royals leftfielder Alex Gordon. Niemann threw a 2-and-2 fastball by Gordon, who checked his swing and was called out.
"That," Niemann said, "was the game."
Niemann credited the defense. Second baseman Sean Rodriguez came up with two great plays, and shortstop Elliot Johnson made a rocket throw from the hole to get Johnny Giavotella in the fourth. Johnson did so again after Casey Kotchman started a first-shortstop-pitcher double play in the eighth, and catcher Kelly Shoppach threw out first baseman Eric Hosmer trying to steal second in the seventh.
"Our defense was spectacular," Rays manager Joe Maddon said. "If you're a baseball purist and were not entertained by our defense tonight, then there's something wrong with you. That was special to watch."
So was the stand-up, bloop triple by Rays centerfielder Desmond Jennings in the fifth. Jennings hustled around when his shallow fly ball bounced in front of a diving Melky Cabrera in center. Jennings scored on Longoria's sacrifice fly.
"An incredible feat," Maddon said.
The rest of the offense was supplied by rightfielder Ben Zobrist, who ripped a two-out, two-run triple in the third, and Rodriguez, who slapped a two-out, two-strike RBI single in the eighth.
It all set the stage for the upcoming AL East showdowns, starting tonight in Yankee Stadium. Maddon has talked about making up one game a week in the standings, saying "It's up to us," as they face New York and Boston a combined 18 times in the next two months.
"Now we're in a spot where we're pretty close to striking distance, and if we don't go out and perform well in these two road series, it's going to be tough to dig ourselves out of that hole," Longoria said. "If we can find a way to win some games on the road against these two teams that are in front of us, it's going to make for a pretty interesting September."