ST. PETERSBURG — Much of the Rays' past two months were defined by poor play as a result of not having their best players on the field.
But with a second straight win over the Yankees on Tuesday, this one 7-4 in front of 26,453 at the Trop, they reached the official midpoint of their season at 43-38, back within 5½ games of first place to reclaim a share of the wild-card lead, playing more like they expect to and feeling better about it.
"A little more indicative of what we're supposed to look like," manager Joe Maddon said.
That meant some timely hits from throughout the lineup, led by Sean Rodriguez, who showed off the adjustments to his swing with a two-run homer in the fourth that put them ahead to stay. A key defensive play, with Ben Zobrist, Rodriguez and Jose Molina teaming to get a key out at the plate in the sixth. A dose of derring-do on the bases, a double-steal in which Desmond Jennings swiped home after B.J. Upton broke for second.
And good enough pitching, James Shields, despite allowing 10 hits, getting the win and All-Star Fernando Rodney getting his major league-leading 24th save.
"It's kind of like us — timely hitting, defense, baserunning," Upton said. "Those are the little things that we strive to do better than others, and we've done that the last two nights."
The seven runs were a relative outburst, more than they'd scored in any of their previous eight games, their longest such streak in a season since September 2009, and a big reason they were smiling afterward.
The talk in the clubhouse, after the usual raucous celebration, was of staying hot through Sunday's All-Star break, boosted by the potential return of outfielder Matt Joyce as soon as Friday, then rolling into the second half, with third baseman Evan Longoria rejoining them at some point as well.
"We're going to be a much better offensive club season-in-progress," Maddon said. "We're much better than this last month (a team record-low .222 average) indicates. It does ebb and flow, man, and flow owes us right now."
Shields put them in an early hole Tuesday, but they battled back with three in the third, Elliot Johnson getting them started with a hit then a slide to dislodge the ball from catcher Russell Martin's glove, and Jeff Keppinger delivering a genuine big hit, a two-out, two-run single that tied it at 3. The Yankees re-took the lead in the fourth when Raul Ibanez doubled off the wall, helped by Upton's mistimed leap, and later scored.
But the Rays answered again, loudly, in the fourth as Rodriguez, after extensive work with hitting coach Derek Shelton, crushed a 432-foot two-run homer to left, his first since May 27.
"We finally got some big hits, that's the thing that's really been eluding us," Maddon said. "Sean putting us on top with the home run really picked everybody up."
They added on in the seventh by returning to their aggressive ways, Upton giving Jennings "the look" then taking off for second, Jennings reading the play (and Martin's bad throw) and breaking for home.
Shields settled in a bit to preserve the lead before turning it over to the pen, and the Rays punctuated the defensive effort with a sixth-inning relay from Zobrist to Rodriguez to Molina, who made a diving tag. "A very big moment," Maddon said. "All three of them did their job."
For a couple of nights, as they ran their home winning streak to a stunning nine against the Yankees (who helped with three errors), they all could pretty much say that.
Marc Topkin can be reached at [email protected]
* Made postseason