Baldelli bashes Burres to finish sweep
Designated hitter strokes three hits off starter to back Shields
ST. PETERSBURG -- If it isn't broken, don't fix it.
The Rays put that mantra to good use on Sunday afternoon as a pair of Rocco Baldelli doubles, recurrent walks and strong starting pitching gave a 10-4 series-sweeping victory over the Orioles quite the familiar feel.
The tried-and-true formula sprinkled with record-breaking ground -- Jason Bartlett's first homer of the season and a franchise-high 34 runs in a three-game series -- helped improve the Rays' position in the American League East race.
The win -- coupled the Red Sox's 4-2 loss to Chicago -- gave Tampa Bay a 5 1/2-game lead over Boston, tying the Rays' previous season high.
"We have to play with ... the pedal to the metal," manager Joe Maddon said. "We have to be able to do that. We can't take anything for granted. ... I believe if you take care of the seconds, the minutes and hours take care of themselves. And we're taking care of the seconds right now."
And as the calendar flips toward September's stretch run, the Rays put August in the books with a 21-7 record -- the best single month in franchise history -- despite injuries to Evan Longoria, Carl Crawford and Troy Percival.
"I'm not surprised it's gone this well," Maddon said. "I'm telling you I know that are guys are [not either]. The intensity among the group has been tremendous. I like what we're building here in the sense that I believe it's sustainable, because you're not relying on one or two superstars to carry the weight."
Baldelli, the hero in Saturday night's walk-off win, appeared to have bottled a little bit of that same magic. In the bottom of the first inning, the Rays designated hitter shot a liner down the third-base line eerily reminiscent of the previous night's game-winning double. Baldelli and Carlos Pena -- Saturday's winning run -- scored on Willy Aybar's single to left.
Baldelli struck again with one out in the third and B.J. Upton on first, notching his third straight double down the third-base line, and giving the Rays a pair of runners in scoring position. After Orioles starter Brian Burres intentionally walked Aybar to put the force on, a sacrifice fly from Ben Zobrist and Bartlett's single pushed another pair of runs across.
"I'm telling you, he is a candidate for the MVP of this team without question," Maddon said of the red-hot Bartlett. "He plays every day, and he's added another dimension to this team that we never had. The stability in the defense starts right there, and he's the man responsible for that."
But on Sunday afternoon, it was Bartlett's stick that did the talking.
The infielder hit his first home run in a Rays uniform in the seventh inning and finished the day 4-for-4 with a hit-by-pitch. Bartlett last went yard as a Minnesota Twin on Aug. 27, 2007. He recorded a .389 average in August.
"We're swinging well right now [and] our pitching has kept us in a lot of ballgames," Bartlett said. "If we can get 'em both going this last month and on into the playoffs, it's going to be a fun year."
All cylinders were firing on Sunday, as stingy defense helped starter James Shields toss seven innings of one-run baseball en route to matching his career high with his 12th win.
"We are rolling right now," Shields said. "Our hitters are doing really well right now, and we're pitching just as good as we've been pitching [all year]. And that equates to three good wins."
Equally pleased with the effort was Maddon, who has praised quality at-bats all season. Over the three-game series, the Rays drew 25 walks and had six hit batters.
"You see runs but it all starts with better mental at-bats," Maddon said. "I like the idea that we kept adding on, kept adding on."
The series sweep -- the Rays' ninth this season -- felt like gravy atop a trying yet rewarding month. But what lies ahead could be even more savory.
"I think we're all pumped up about September," Bartlett said. "Because everybody keeps saying [that the Rays will be tested] as opposed to those teams have to play the Rays. It's always the Rays have to play so-and-so. But I think we're up there. No one wants to play us, especially at home. I think everybody's got that extra urge to go out and win ballgames because of [what people say].
"We hear it on the TVs in here and like I said, everybody gets pumped up. We'll turn it on and all the guys say, 'All right, let's win this ballgame, let's prove 'em wrong.'"
Brittany Ghiroli is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.