ST. PETERSBURG — Having dispensed with the Indians in Tuesday's matinee like so many others, this time a 6-2 victory that made David Price the American League's winningest pitcher, the Rays headed for the big city, a two-game series starting tonight with the Yankees.
They'll show up at new Yankee Stadium with the league's leading pitching staff, a defense that distinguishes itself daily, an offense that keeps finding a way to go just enough.
And a baseball-best record they feel shouldn't be questioned.
"Y'know, 28-11 is a pretty good start," manager Joe Maddon said. "They could ask all the questions they like. I don't think we have to answer anything."
The Rays were sputtering at 3-3 after they last saw the Yankees, losing two of three the first weekend of the season. They're 25-8 since, have been atop the AL East by themselves for nearly a month and, with a season-high three-game lead over the 25-14 Yankees, are kinda getting used to the view.
"We're in first, they're not. They have to catch us," Price said. "So the pressure's on them, not us."
"I think they know they've got a tough two-game series against us," Thursday starter James Shields said. "So it should be fun."
The Rays had their fun Tuesday as they have often while posting the best 39-game mark since the 2002 Red Sox — a strong start by Price, excellent relief work and timely, if not abundant, hitting.
Price was limited to six innings (and 97 pitches) as Maddon stuck to his plan to rein in the starters' workload, but they were a strong six. He allowed only four singles, gave up just an unearned run (after Carlos Peña misplayed a slow grounder) and struck out five, showcasing command of his fastball.
"When he's like that, he's really tough," Maddon said "He's throwing 94-95 (mph), down, strikes. When he's doing that kind of stuff it's really hard to dig him out, and his other pitches become even better."
All Price did was improve to an AL-leading 6-1 and lower his ERA to 1.81. And, of course, insist it's not good enough, pointing to his three walks, two with two outs and nobody on. "I feel like there's still room for improvement," he said.
After the requisite handful of highlight plays — second baseman Sean Rodriguez going deep in the hole, fill-in leftfielder Gabe Kapler doing his best Carl Crawford with a running catch and B.J. Upton doing B.J. Upton with another running grab in center — the Rays broke open what had been a 1-1 tie.
The four runs they scored in the sixth were their most in a single frame in 3½ weeks, and they relished the relative outburst, stringing together flares, bloopers and bunts until Evan Longoria ripped a ball to center for a two-run triple.
"Our game is a pretty good game right now," Maddon said. "We just haven't hit to our potentials yet, but we've been doing everything else pretty good."
The Yankees see it, too, with general manager Brian Cashman saying Tuesday in New York: "Right now they're the best team in baseball coming in here."
The Rays insist they're keeping the series in perspective, no question.
"It's only two games in the middle of May and they're not going to make or break our season right now," Longoria said, "but they are important and it's important for us to go in there and stress getting out of there with two victories."
"It's always better to be at the top looking down, but we've got to kind of play like we're looking up. We have to keep that same intensity that we've been going out there with every day."
Marc Topkin can be reached at [email protected]