ST. PETERSBURG — Saturday's 4-2 victory over the Yankees was another example of the Rays showing not only their ability but their belief, no matter how a game starts or where it seems headed, that they can come out on top.
"When you get to that point in the year — it's almost September — and you get that vibe among your group, it's kind of a good thing," manager Joe Maddon said. "We've been there before as a playoff team, and it really smells that way right now."
The win in front of 32,862 at the Trop was the Rays' eighth in their past 10 games, improving them to 74-53 to match their season high of 21 games over .500 and keeping them atop the American League East by percentage points over the Red Sox.
They're there for a number of reasons, from the starting pitching getting for the most part back in order, a resurgence in the offense, reliability in the bullpen and spectacular defense on just about a daily basis.
Also, Evan Longoria.
"Longo getting back to being Longo has helped a lot, actually," Maddon said.
For a long time, more than a month, Longoria looked like someone else. But slowly over the past couple of weeks he has gotten more comfortable, and more familiar, with his swing. Saturday was the latest example, as his first three-hit game in two months included a sixth-inning single that put the Rays ahead and an eighth-inning homer, his 27th, that helped make sure they stayed there.
Sure, David Price battled through six innings and an "amorphic" — Maddon's word — strike zone from umpire Jerry Meals, as the Rays won the eighth of his nine meetings with CC Sabathia. Ben Zobrist had the first big hit, doubling in two to tie, his team-high 23rd tying/go-ahead RBI. Sean Rodriguez made a leaping catch at the leftfield wall on what Alfonso Soriano obviously thought was a home run ("He did his hop, jump and his skip, so I figured it was 30 rows deep," Price said). And Fernando Rodney finished, drama-free, for his 30th save.
But it was Longoria who led the way.
"He's us," Price said. "That's what it is. As he goes, we go. A lot of teams probably say that about certain players, but that really stands true behind Longo. … When he's swinging the bat well, you can try and be careful with him, you can make that good pitch, but he is who he is. He'll definitely be an MVP candidate year in, year out like he's been. I love him out there."
Longoria's setup is unique and his swing very feel-oriented, so he said there was no one moment when he suddenly felt he had escaped the extended slump, but more of a gradual process.
"I think sometimes you just have to have a couple of good at-bats and feel what it's supposed to feel like before you can actually start doing it on a consistent basis," he said. "I just continued to hit and work in the cage. After a couple good at-bats, they've just started to pile up lately."
So have the results, as he's hitting .317 over his past 16 games with eight doubles and six homers, after a 33-game stretch with a .174 average and just seven extra-base hits.
"There's so many ups and downs," he said. "Hopefully (I can) ride it out for the rest of the year and help the team to be where we want to be come Sept. 30."
Marc Topkin can be reached at [email protected]tampabay.com. Follow him on Twitter at @TBTimes_Rays.