ST. PETERSBURG — For all that has gone wrong for Evan Longoria this season — and there has been plenty — some of his numbers are starting to look right.
In leading the Rays to an 8-0 Saturday night victory over the Mariners, Longoria had his 20th homer and pushed his RBI total to a team-high 72, including a major league-most 59 over the past 10 weeks of a season marred by injuries and other issues.
Longoria joined Hall of Famer Eddie Mathews as the only third basemen to have 20 or more homers in their first four seasons. (Atlanta's Chipper Jones had none in his brief 1993 debut, then 14 straight seasons of 20-plus.) He also joined Aubrey Huff and Carlos Peña as Rays with four 20-homer seasons, the first to do it in his first four.
"That was kind of a target number for me when I came off the DL (in early May) and had all of the struggles that I was going through," Longoria said. "To get to where I'm at right now, I'm pretty happy with the way it's gone. And I'm just happy that there's still over a month left, that I can really try and make a push for turning the season around completely for myself."
He had help Saturday before 20,148 at Tropicana Field as the Rays won for the 12th time in their past 16 games and improved to 68-56, a season-high 12 games over .500. More important, it was a rare day — just the sixth since May 12 — in which they gained ground on both the Yankees and Red Sox, moving to within eight games of first in the American League East (their closest in a month) and 7½ from the wild card.
"I'll take that trifecta," manager Joe Maddon said. "I love those days. We need more of those days, especially right now. You want to be, 'Who are those guys?' Let's go Butch Cassidy on them, keep sneaking up from behind and see what happens."
Right-hander Jeremy Hellickson rebounded from a rough last outing in New York with a solid performance, riding his fastball for seven strong innings, then battling through the eighth, allowing six hits overall.
"I just wanted to come out here and attack the zone better than I did the last game," Hellickson said.
Hellickson improved to 11-8 with a 3.04 ERA, furthering his cause in a rookie of the year race that also includes Seattle's Michael Pineda, who starts today at 9-7, and Angels slugger Mark Trumbo.
On the first official night of the Rays' new no-batting-practice routine, Johnny Damon had three hits, pushing his career total to 2,694, and so did Ben Zobrist, including his major-league-leading 41st double and his 62nd extra-base hit, tying his career high.
Longoria can be the biggest key to the offense, though, and even though his batting average is somewhat of a lost cause at .233, the rest of his numbers are impressive.
His season started going bad before he left spring training. He had a car stolen from an Arizona shop, and his Port Charlotte rental home was broken into. Then he strained his left oblique in the second regular-season game of the season and missed a month. And he was hampered for months by a painful nerve condition in his left foot.
"I attribute it to just my body feeling healthy," he said of his resurgence. "And being able to finally get back to the swing that I had at the end of 2010 and just gaining the confidence.
"The confidence is the main thing; once it goes in this game, it's tough to bounce back and believe in yourself again. But to have a couple good weeks and really start feeling it again is a good feeling."
He got the Rays started Saturday after Damon tripled with one out in the first, crushing a 3-and-0 fastball from Charlie Furbush. It was Longoria's ninth homer in his past 28 games and the eighth of his 20 that tied the score or put the Rays ahead.
"We're on a nice little run here, and that's because of him," Hellickson said. "He's driving in runs, and if he keeps doing that, we're going to win a lot of games."