ST. PETERSBURG -- Though the Rays are more than capable of putting up plenty of runs when their All-Star third baseman is in a self-described "slump," their lineup reaches a whole new level when Evan Longoria is at his best -- something the Rangers saw all too well during this series.
The Rays wrapped up a brilliant three-game sweep of the Rangers on Wednesday afternoon with an 8-6 victory before 19,413 in Tropicana Field, with Longoria going 3-for-4 and driving in four runs. If the Yankees drop their series finale against the Tigers on Wednesday night, the Rays (74-46) will take sole possession of first place in the American League East for the first time since Aug. 3.
Longoria finished the series 7-for-12 with eight RBIs and five extra-base hits (one home run, a triple and three doubles), raising his slugging percentage, from .484 to .504, over the three-game span.
"I go into slumps or times where I'm getting pitches I know I can hit, but I'm not hitting them," Longoria said. "Then you get into a series like this last one, where it seems like every time I swing the bat, I'm hitting it on the barrel and it's finding a gap or finding a hole. It's just one of those parts of the game where you've got to take them as they come."
Longoria had plenty of backup from the rest of the lineup in support of a nice bounceback performance from right-hander James Shields on the mound. But Longoria was the difference in the sweep of AL West-leading Texas (67-52), arguably one of the Rays' most complete dismantling of an opponent since they defeated the Tigers in four straight in late July.
After finishing a home run shy of the cycle on Tuesday night, Longoria drove in half of the team's runs Wednesday with a home run, two doubles and a sacrifice fly. The homer, a fourth-inning solo shot down the left-field line, was his first since July 28.
Longoria put the first run of the game on the board in the first. Carl Crawford knocked a two-out bloop single to left field and scored on Longoria's double to left-center off Rangers left-hander Derek Holland. He doubled in another run in the fifth, driving one to deep center field to score Jason Bartlett, putting the Rays ahead, 4-1.
Manager Joe Maddon said that the key for Longoria has been the way he is now hitting pitches he would have fouled off or taken in previous games. Getting a great all-around effort from his teammates -- such as the 2-for-4, two-steal day by leadoff hitter B.J. Upton -- has also helped take some of the pressure off Longoria.
"I come to the ballpark every day, and there's a certain amount of pressure because I do want to do something to help the team win every day, whether it's driving in two or three runs or making that diving play on defense," Longoria said. "Even when I don't do it with the bat, I just try to go out there and do it with the glove also."
Rangers manager Ron Washington pointed to some unfortunate injuries that left his team shorthanded in St. Petersburg, but even he admitted that Longoria was the key to the Rays' winning ways this week. Even the team's Wednesday promotion was focused on Longoria, with the "Senior Prom for Senior Citizens" event based on Longoria's line in a Pepsi commercial.
"He had a great series," Washington said. "We couldn't stop him from the first game on."
With three players hitting well before him, Longoria was able to focus on what he does best: driving in runs. Over the past two games, the first four batters in the batting order have gone 15-for-31 with three homers, a triple, three doubles, 14 RBIs, eight walks and 14 runs.
Though the Longoria-led lineup was performing about as well as he could hope for the last three games, Maddon noted that the sweep wouldn't have been possible if the starting pitching hadn't been so dependable. Shields didn't need to be perfect on the mound, but he was as good as he's been since throwing 7 1/3 shutout innings against the Yankees on Aug. 1.
The right-hander gave up a combined 12 earned runs in nine innings since that outing, but he rebounded by scattering four hits and walking only one while striking out six in seven innings.
Maddon has often said that Shields is at his best when he keeps his game plan simple, pitching off his fastball and implementing his curveball and changeup to keep hitters guessing. That strategy worked on Wednesday, as Shields returned to .500 (11-11) on the year and lowered his ERA to 4.82.
"We were functioning on all different cylinders. When you draw it up in the beginning, this is what it's supposed to look like," Maddon said. "But it all starts with the pitching. The pitching has been wonderful. The defense has been there. Now, all of a sudden, the difference is when you get the offense involved like we have. Then you really get this vibe to the entire group. Everybody seems even more alive because they're hitting now, too."
With the pennant race heating up and the Rays well positioned to get back on top, the mood in the clubhouse was extremely optimistic as the team prepares to head to the West Coast for a seven-game road trip. And with the starting pitching, defense and hitting all getting on the same page at an opportune time, it's easy to understand why.
"It's starting to click, but I think if you ask anyone in this clubhouse, there's still room for improvement," Upton said. "We're definitely playing good baseball right now, so we've just got to keep going and keep doing the things we're doing right now."
Adam Berry is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.