BALTIMORE — The experience of being in the playoffs twice in the past three seasons is something that B.J. Upton will never forget. And that he badly wants to experience again.
Making sure the Rays showed no signs of a letdown or letting up, Upton led the way again Monday — setting two team offensive records along the way — as they won their fifth straight by beating the Orioles 5-2.
The win pulled the Rays within three games of the Red Sox, the closest they've been to the wild-card spot since July 8. And with the Red Sox Nation already in full panic mode during an off day, and Boston general manager Theo Epstein putting the onus on his team to prove itself, the drama is building for the four-game weekend series in Fenway Park.
"Being there (in the postseason) twice and actually being in the World Series, I think that's what you play the whole season for," Upton said. "I know a lot of people wrote us off about a month, a month and a half ago, but here we are right in the thick of things. And we've got those guys (the Red Sox) head-up one more series. I think it's important we win as many games as possible."
Upton did his part, scoring three runs, after walking twice and doubling twice. Tacked on to his four-hit and a walk game Sunday, he reached base in a team-record nine consecutive plate appearances. The two walks also topped the franchise mark of 373.
In his past eight games, seven in the No. 2 spot, Upton has a .467 average (14-for-30) and, with seven walks, a .568 on-base percentage. Add in his wide-ranging defense and he's having a major impact at the right time.
"He's been fantastic," manager Joe Maddon said. "Everything he's been doing has been maybe as good as I've seen him honestly.
"He's playing with a lot of focus and intensity right now, and it's fun to watch because this is how good he can be."
Upton wasn't the only one doing well Monday, as Jeff Niemann worked 72/3 innings for his 10th win — allowing the Rays to join the Brewers and Rangers with five starters in double digits — and J.P. Howell and Joel Peralta teamed for the final four outs, filling out what will be a nightly bullpen puzzle with closer Kyle Farnsworth (elbow) still sidelined indefinitely.
Niemann looked headed for a troubling early exit as the O's, having cut the lead to 4-1, had men on second and third with one out in the fifth. But Niemann, making the kind of adjustment he couldn't in his past two starts, rallied to strike out Matt Angle and get J.J. Hardy on a grounder.
"The big moment in tonight's game for us," Maddon said.
"Huge," Niemann said.
The Rays (82-64) still have a difficult route to make the playoffs, making up three games with 16 left. But Maddon wants them to keep playing like they are already in the playoffs, with the same intensity every night — even against the last-place Orioles in a nearly empty Camden Yards.
"The playoffs began for us (Friday)," he said. "We're going for the two-month gig right now. We're going for the World Cup. There's no letting up. Every game from our perspective has a playoff atmosphere attached to it, absolutely. That's the way it should be."