ST. PETERSBURG — The missive to the Rays was clear, detailed by manager Joe Maddon prior to Thursday's workout, then again by hitting coach Derek Shelton in a motivational meeting before Friday's game: remaining contenders for a playoff spot starts with better at-bats leading to improved production.
They responded well, scoring more than in any home game this season, opening their crucial seven-game post-All-Star-break stretch with a 9-6 win over the division-leading Red Sox before a Tropicana Field crowd of 25,729.
"Definitely we wanted to come in and start the second half right, especially offensively, at home particularly," Ben Zobrist said. "That was definitely fresh in our minds."
The win was the Rays' 50th and pulled them to within five games of the Red Sox in the AL East. It also pushed them over .500 at home, at 22-21, for the first time this season.
Zobrist had the biggest of the Rays' 11 hits, a second-inning grand slam that was a big reason they jumped out early — improving to 37-9 when scoring first — and hung on. David Price battled through six innings, and a season-high 121 pitches, for his first win in more than three weeks, and five relievers teamed to finish.
But Maddon said it was some of the other at-bats that he was most pleased with, such as B.J. Upton's first-inning RBI single to center after being down 0-and-2 in the count, and Zobrist's second at-bat with the bases loaded, when he battled back from a 1-and-2 count to draw a walk.
"We did a lot of good things," Maddon said. "I saw really better at-bats. I saw good at-bats deep in the count. We didn't give up the count. We moved the ball. We moved the ball with two strikes. We protected the plate well.
"I just thought we worked much better mental at-bats, and that's what I've been after. I thought it was really good."
With Upton's single, Zobrist's grand slam (their first since September) and runs in the third on Sam Fuld's single and Zobrist's walk, the Rays took a 7-2 lead after three. Casey Kotchman added a two-run homer in the sixth.
Price wasn't particularly sharp, allowing a career-high-tying three home runs. But he left with the Rays ahead, and that was good enough.
Jake McGee got a key out in his return to the majors, catching Jacoby Ellsbury looking to end the seventh after the Sox closed to 9-5. But J.P. Howell got the biggest, coming on with one on and one out in the eighth and the score 9-6 and striking out dangerous David Ortiz on — for Howell — a blazing 87 mph fastball.
"That's getting there," Howell said. "It's about time. It's been about 10 years."
Maddon covered a lot of topics in his Thursday speech, but improving the quality of their at-bats was a primary theme. That includes taking advantage of what the pitcher offers. And Friday, that also meant five walks from Sox starter Andrew Miller, who lasted only 22/3 innings.
Shelton was a bit more direct on Friday.
"It was motivational as well as instructional," Zobrist said. "There wasn't screaming and yelling, but there definitely was some forcefulness behind what he said. We talked (Thursday) a little bit too about just believing what we're capable of doing, and I think Shelty added to that today with what he said.
"At the end of it, I told him I felt like I could punch through a wall."
Hitting a grand slam would have to do.
Marc Topkin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.