ST. PETERSBURG - Manager Joe Maddon likes to talk about his swarming offense, how the Rays put together big innings with hits and walks and hits. On Monday, that was replaced by a quick-strike attack that surfaced in the seventh inning and pushed the Rays into sole possession of second place.
A solo home run by Yunel Escobar and a two-run shot by Ben Zobrist gave the Rays the lead for good in the seventh against the slumping Twins and sent the Rays to a 7-4 victory in front of 11,516 at Tropicana Field.
The Rays' win, coupled with the Orioles' loss to the Rangers in Baltimore, broke a tie for second place in the American League East.
This is the Rays' best position in the standings since April 6 when they were tied for first.
“That's good, but our goal is to be in first,” Zobrist said. “We still got our work cut out for us. Boston is a tough team. All the teams in our division are tough. We still have to play them a lot. It will be a battle. It will continue to be a battle. We're playing well right now, and we feel good about that.”
Monday's win was also the Rays 50th in 90 games, which means they are a season-high 10 games above .500. The only teams in franchise history to get to 50 wins quicker were the 2008 and 2010 teams.
“The thing I like is that we're 10 games over and segmentally we have to get up to 15, that would be next and we work it from there,” Maddon said.
The Rays were in last place by percentage points on June 23. Since then they've won 11 of 14 games. Monday's win was their fifth straight and ninth in their last 10 games.
They are 7-1 during this 14-game stretch against the Astros, White Sox and Twins, not exactly the best the American League has to offer.
But, Maddon said, that is not as much of a factor in the Rays' recent run as outsiders like to think.
“We're playing among some of our best baseball, probably our best baseball right now,” he said.
“I think all the way across the board, offensively and pitching and defense, everything is just kind of clicking right now,” he said. “I feel like it really doesn't matter who we're playing. We feel pretty confident about the way we're playing. That's where we're at right now, and it's a good spot to be in.”
The Twins, who've now lost eight of their last nine and 13 of their last 17, were ready to give the Rays a game.
An early 2-0 Rays lead built on a first-inning home run by Luke Scott and a second-inning RBI single by Jose Molina was gone by the fourth inning.
Roberto Hernandez, who is the first Tampa Bay pitcher with 10 losses by the All-Star break since Seth McClung went 2-10 in 2006,
allowed one run in the third inning on a pair of doubles, then let the Twins take the lead in the fourth when Justin Morneau tied the score with a leadoff home run and Trevor Plouffe, who singled, scored on a sacrifice fly by Chris Parmalee.
Hernandez avoided joining Dennis Springer (1998) and Albie Lopez (2001) as the only pitchers in franchise history with 11 losses before the break because Evan Longoria delivered a run-scoring single in the fifth and because the bullpen picked up the final three innings.
Escobar snapped the 3-3 tie with a homer leading off the seventh inning. Desmond Jennings followed with a triple.
That brought Zobrist to the plate, and the Rays All-Star added some insurance runs with a home run that bounced off the top of the left-field wall and into the stands.
“Yuni had the big hit right there giving us the upper hand,” Zobrist said. “He's just been huge for us lately — offensively, defensively, everything that he's been doing. I felt like getting up there in that spot I could help add a run there and put the barrel on the ball, and I got enough to get it out.”
Escobar scored Wil Myers with a sacrifice fly in the eighth inning.
After Alex Torres and Joel Peralta each pitched perfect innings, Jamey Wright took over in the ninth, allowed a run and gave way to Fernando Rodney.
Rodney retired the only two batters he faced for his 20th save.