ST. PETERSBURG — Evan Longoria said he could sense a lot of "spark and life" in the dugout Friday, more than he had seen in recent memory.
The third baseman believes it stemmed from Tampa Bay's six-run rally in the ninth during Thursday's 7-4 walkoff win over Boston, which he called the "biggest game of the year" and a potential "turning point."
"It kicked us back into gear," Longoria said. "It made us realize, 'Hey, this is not over yet.' "
The Rays acted like they were playing for something bigger in Friday's 12-1 drubbing of the Blue Jays in front of 14,187 at Tropicana Field, carrying over momentum from Thursday's comeback for their third straight win. In doing so, Tampa Bay (81-70) pulled within 4½ games of Oakland for the second AL wild-card spot with 11 to play.
"I totally, absolutely believe we can do this," manager Joe Maddon said. "I firmly believe that. It's about a bunch of one-game winning streaks on our part. We're very capable."
The Rays have always thought their scuffling offense was capable of a breakout, and they've racked up 32 runs over the past three games, their third-most over a three-game span in team history. Maddon believed some players were pressing during a 1-5 road trip last week, but he thinks they're starting to "chill out" and find a "relaxed zone."
"It's fun," Maddon said. "A lot of guys are getting hot at the right time."
Just ask Jays starter Carlos Villanueva, who allowed eight runs over 2⅓ innings. Shortstop Ben Zobrist started it off with a solo homer in the first, with catcher Jose Molina adding a two-run blast in the Rays' four-run third.
"I felt like I could have thrown the rosin bag up there and they would hit it square," Villanueva said. "Ran into a hot team, and they took advantage of every mistake I made."
Nearly everyone was hitting the ball hard. Longoria and second baseman Jeff Keppinger each tallied three hits, and DH Luke Scott racked up three RBIs (on two extra-base hits). First baseman Carlos Peña is now 4-for-10 in his past three games.
"If we can continue to not expand our strike zone and force the pitcher over the plate, I think we can continue this upsurge," Maddon said.
The Rays got another strong performance from James Shields, who threw seven shutout innings to pick up his 15th win. In striking out nine, Shields helped the Rays set an American League strikeout record for a season with 1,275, topping the 2001 Yankees (1,266). After clinching the mark with a second-inning strikeout of catcher J.P. Arencibia, Shields tipped his cap to fellow pitchers in the dugout.
He also set a personal mark, becoming the first Ray to record 200-plus strikeouts in back-to-back seasons. But Shields hopes he's far from done for the year.
"Even though we've got to win games, we're relaxed and having some fun right now with it," Shields said. "We're trying our best to get back in the action."
"You just hope that it's not too little, too late," Longoria said.