ST. PETERSBURG — Normally, it's not a good night when your bullpen is in action four batters into a game. But this — dare we say it? — may be a special time for the Rays, who just may be working their way into position for another dramatic dash to the postseason.
The Rays barely seemed to notice the early departure of starter Matt Moore in clubbing the Blue Jays 11-5 Saturday night to win their fourth straight and move, at 82-70, within 3½ games of the sliding A's — who blew a four-run 13th-inning lead in New York — for the second American League wild-card spot with 10 left to play.
"I think everyone at this point is feeling some sort of pressure, that a couple mistakes can cost you," Evan Longoria said. "We understand we have to go out and win every game, and we're actually in a pretty good spot for this ballclub because we don't have any pressure on us. We don't have anybody crawling up our tail. We're just able to focus on the people that are in front of us and continue to try to put pressure on them."
They've certainly looked relaxed and much more productive.
They set a team record with 43 runs over a four-game span. They hit a season-high-tying four home runs, including a three-run blast by Longoria and a career-high 25th by B.J. Upton. They reached double digits in back-to-back home games for the first time since April 2010.
"I like watching ESPN highlights," Moore said, "and that's basically what we've been watching the last few days."
But what manager Joe Maddon was most enthused about was their discipline at the plate, evidenced by a walk/strikeout ratio of 25-16 over the four games. "The at-bats have been so good," he said. "It's most noticeable by us taking borderline pitches out of the zone."
Longoria said they are also more confident: "You kind of get that feeling, even when you get down in a game, that it's not going to matter, and we've had that before."
Moore lasted only until the third — his third consecutive start of four or fewer innings — though he says he's not worn down from his 172 innings. Maddon said he sensed the rookie lefty "just didn't have it" and went quickly to the bullpen, Burke Badenhop, who got the win, starting a parade of six relievers.
Longoria's second-inning homer, which struck a light on the C-ring catwalk, estimated at 413 feet (though Maddon said it may have been the longest he had seen at the Trop), pushed the Rays ahead 4-2 in the second, and they piled on from there. Desmond Jennings homered in the fourth, and Jose Molina and Upton went deep in a four-run sixth.
Maddon keeps saying how he wants his guys to just focus on one-game winning streaks. But he doesn't mind talking about the pressure the teams they're chasing may be feeling.
"It's tough when you're struggling and you want to get this done and you want to make it happen," he said. "You're always thinking in advance and you're living in the future a little too much, and that really is dangerous.
"Anxiety lives in the future. You've got to stay in the present, you've got focus on today, per at-bat, per pitch. That's what we've been doing. That's the big difference."
Marc Topkin can be reached at [email protected]