MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — The American League wild card standings show that the Tampa Bay Rays are solidly in the mix to return to the postseason.
The Rays, however, have higher aspirations. Tampa Bay has made it very clear that it wants to win the American League East. The Rays’ 4-2 victory over the Minnesota Twins on Saturday night was the latest example of why they believe that making up six games and catching the New York Yankees is possible.
Behind another strong pitching performance from David Price, a pair of home runs from B.J. Upton, and a homer from Matt Joyce, the Rays stretched their winning streak to five and won for the 10th time in 13 games.
It is no surprise that the Rays are making a surge because they are a combined 78-43 in August since 2008.
“We want to get into October, first and foremost, but we want to hang another banner,” said Price, who moved into a share of the major league lead in victories with Jered Weaver of the Los Angeles Angels and R.A. Dickey of the New York Mets. “We’re playing our best baseball right now that we have all season. We’ve put ourselves in position.”
Rays manager Joe Maddon understands what this winning streak and two weeks of good baseball can mean.
“When you win five in a row, then you show up and you feel like you’re going to win,” Maddon said. “That’s, obviously, a good thing and that does turn into winning more often. It just does.
“This is not about just making the playoffs and this is not about just being a wild card team. This is about winning our division.”
Having Price (15-4) continue a summer of strong starts certainly helps in that quest.
Price held the Twins to two runs and seven hits in seven innings. He has worked at least seven innings in 10 consecutive starts and hasn’t lost since June 13. He is 7-0 with a 2.10 ERA in that span.
“He wasn’t the best he can be. You get kind of spoiled watching him as often as we do,” Maddon said. “But he was good.”
Part of what has the Rays optimistic is that Price, who never faced more than five batters in an inning, doesn’t have to be perfect to win.
The Rays led 3-0 before Price threw his first pitch as Tampa Bay didn’t need much time — or many pitches — to jump to an early lead against Nick Blackburn (4-8).
After Desmond Jennings singled to lead off the game, Upton immediately followed with a homer to left-center field. Joyce, the third batter of the game, then hit an upper-deck home run to right field that gave the Rays a 3-0 lead seven pitches into the game.
“Those first three guys kind of ambushed me,” Blackburn said. “Came out, wasn’t quite where I wanted to be location-wise, and it pretty much cost us.”
While Blackburn settled down, he was again unable to pitch deep into the game. Blackburn, who gave up four runs and 11 hits in six-plus innings, has gotten through the seventh inning only once in 18 starts this season.
The only time the Twins threatened against Price was in the second when they strung together three hits to start the inning. Josh Willingham scored on Darin Mastroianni’s infield single, but Price induced Dozier to ground into a double play, and got Drew Butera to ground out to end the inning.
Upton stretched Tampa Bay’s lead to 4-1 with a solo homer to center field in the fifth. It was Upton’s third multihomer game in the majors.
Dozier cut the Twins’ deficit to 4-2 in the fifth with his sixth homer of the season.
The Twins had a chance to cut into Tampa Bay’s lead in the seventh after Morneau and Mastroianni singled. But Price, who struck out five and didn’t walk a batter, answered by striking out Dozier and Ryan Doumit to end the inning.
Joel Peralta pitched a scoreless eighth inning for Tampa Bay. Fernando Rodney faced the heart of the Twins lineup and recorded a 1-2-3 ninth to earn his 35th save in 36 opportunities.
“We’re playing some pretty good baseball,” Upton said. “The pitching’s been there for us, and the biggest thing is that the bats are starting to pick up for us. That’s exactly what we need now with a month and a half left in the season.”
But can the Rays catch the Yankees? They believe it is worth a try.
“There’s too much baseball to be played to give up on winning our division,” Upton said. “We all saw what happened last year. A lot can happen in the next two months.”
NOTES: Maddon used the same lineup on Saturday as he did on Friday. It was only the fourth time this season Tampa Bay had identical lineups in consecutive games. … Maddon said he will decide whether to play 3B Evan Longoria on Sunday morning. Longoria, who missed more than three full months with a partially torn left hamstring, has played five consecutive games upon his return from the disabled list. … RH James Shields (10-7, 4.08 ERA) will start Sunday for the Rays. He has given up only one run and five hits over his past two starts. Minnesota will counter with Scott Diamond (10-5, 2.91 ERA), its most consistent pitcher recently. … Rodney set a Rays franchise record with his 20th consecutive save. … Twins OF Denard Span wasn’t in the lineup. Twins manager Ron Gardenhire said he wanted to give Span a day off, but Price’s success against left-handed hitters was also a factor. … With their eighth sellout of the year, the Twins passed the 2 million mark in attendance. … Upton extended his hitting streak to eight games.