ST. PETERSBURG — The Rays talked about how they needed to put together a lengthy winning streak to get back to where they want to be.
To do so, they had to get more consistent in all areas, from starting pitching to the bullpen and defense. If they did, they'd eventually get some breaks.
Sunday, the Rays got a big break in a 5-4 sweep-clinching win over the worst-in-the-majors Nationals, wrapping up their third straight comeback victory in front of 25,841 at Tropicana Field.
The Rays scored the go-ahead run in the eighth after a ground ball by pinch-hitter Willy Aybar caromed off the third-base bag and into leftfield, allowing Carlos Peña to score from second. This came two days after Nationals first baseman Nick Johnson botched a two-out foul popup that led to Gabe Kapler's winning homer.
"When you have good years, you usually get a little more of those (breaks) than the other way around," rightfielder Gabe Gross said. "We hadn't had that many (this year), so it's kind of nice to have some things turn around."
The Rays (34-31) won their season-high fifth straight and tied the Blue Jays for third place in the AL East, a place they haven't been in more than a month. And as they head West to start a six-game trip, they feel they're on to something.
"A championship-caliber team needs contributions from everybody, and not just guys on the 25-man roster," said Kapler, who won a World Series with the Red Sox in 2004. "But guys that come up from Triple A, guys who come over in deals. In order to win a World Series, everybody has to make contributions."
On Sunday, the Rays did.
There was pitcher James Shields, who grinded through 61/3 innings in what manager Joe Maddon called "not one of his sharper nights," giving up four runs but keeping them in the game.
There was the defense, from Gross' outfield assist in the second to second baseman Ben Zobrist's diving stop in the third to centerfielder B.J. Upton's spectacular, over-the-shoulder grab in the seventh.
And there was the bullpen, with Randy Choate, Dan Wheeler and J.P. Howell combining for 22/3 scoreless innings, extending the pen's streak to 221/3.
"We've got that positive energy going, that's the big difference," Howell said. "We're not really worried about the closer-by-committee anymore. We've got used to it, and it's pretty fun."
Then there's Kapler, who hit his third homer in as many games after having none in his first 34. Kapler ripped the tying two-run homer in the sixth, barely clearing the leftfield wall with his 332-foot shot. It was his second tying or go-ahead homer in the past three days.
"When you say clutch hits, I think that's an understatement," Peña said. "Those were huge."
So was Aybar's groundout-turned-double in the eighth, when Peña said he had to "freeze up" for a second until the ball bounced away from Nats third baseman Willie Harris. "Things just went well for them right there," Harris said. "It just barely nicked the corner of the bag. What can you say about a play that goes like that?"
Said Maddon: "I just think you make your own breaks by showing up every night, and doing those 9 equals 8, nine innings hard. There's no quit in our group. We believe if we play to the end, something good is going to happen."
Lately, it has.
Joe Smith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.