ST. PETERSBURG — Evan Longoria said he hoped to provide a "spark" to the Rays offense when he returned just three days ago from a more than three-month stay on the disabled list.
On Thursday, he helped deliver a sweep.
Longoria racked up three hits in Tampa Bay's 7-1 win over the Blue Jays in front of 23,462 at Tropicana Field, the team's first sweep since June 8-10 over the Marlins. He reached base four times, including missing a home run by inches in the eighth inning before settling for a replay-confirmed double. And, most important, Longoria's previously partially torn left hamstring held up in his third consecutive start, a busy day on the bases.
"We won three in a row," Longoria said, smiling, "so (the leg) feels good."
The Rays (59-52), who have won six of their past eight, had a lot of reasons to feel good as they headed out Thursday night for Minnesota to start a 10-game, cross-country road trip.
Their pitching staff continued its special run with another strong start by rookie left-hander Matt Moore, who bounced back after a rough first inning to allow just one run and two hits over six innings. The Rays, who moved to a half-game back in the AL wild-card race, have a majors-best 2.22 ERA since the All-Star break.
"Amazing," manager Joe Maddon said.
"Second-to-none," outfielder Matt Joyce said.
But there's no denying the obvious impact Longoria's presence, albeit at DH, has made the past three games. The same Rays offense that entered the series on a 21-inning scoreless streak tallied 13 hits Thursday afternoon and scored nearly as many runs as it did in the previous six games of the homestand combined (six).
"As soon as he walks into the lineup, it just makes it so much better," first baseman Carlos Peña said. "You can't quantify really, what it means to this ballclub.
"I guess you can look at numbers, but it's so much more than that, just his presence, just lifts us up."
Said Joyce: "With the addition of guys like Longo, I think everybody else is kind of able to relax a bit and gain some confidence. And once you're able to do that, things start rolling."
Longoria said his swing didn't feel right in his first two games; he was 0-for-4 Wednesday with three strikeouts. But after working with hitting coach Derek Shelton and looking at video of his preinjury success at the plate, Longoria took a step in the right direction Thursday.
After a strikeout in his first at-bat, Longoria followed with two singles to left, then reached on an error by leftfielder Rajai Davis. Longoria took his steps cautiously on the bases, running slowly, and was encouraged by how he felt, though it won't be decided until today whether he plays tonight against the Twins.
"When he hits the ball, he's hitting the ball hard already, and that's a good thing," Maddon said of Longoria. "When he hits the ball, the velocity off the bat, it's different. That's what becomes contagious."
Third baseman Jeff Keppinger also had three hits and catcher Jose Lobaton picked up two (along with three RBIs), lighting the Captain Morgan lamp as the player of the game.
"Right now we're pretty much running on all cylinders," Joyce said. "And having the confidence that goes along with it."
Joe Smith can be reached at [email protected]