Rays alone in first after two big blasts

Rays alone in first after two big blasts

ST. PETERSBURG -- Rain pelted the outside of Tropicana Field on Tuesday night while three-run homers rained inside as the Rays took a 6-4 win over the Twins. And the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow was first place.

The Rays' win combined with the Yankees' loss to the Blue Jays put Tampa Bay in sole possession of first place in the American League East for the first time since June 12. In addition, the Rays have now won 10 of their last 11 games (since July 24) and 23 of their last 30 (since June 30) to move to 67-39 on the season, which is the best record in the Major Leagues.

"Obviously, it's nice," manager Joe Maddon said. "I looked at the scoreboard and knew that the Yankees had lost. Probably a lot of the other guys did, too. We want to be in first place. We want to win the division.

"Of course, we want to get to the playoffs, but we want to win the division first. And we had been there for a long period of time this year, and we lost it for a bit, and now we're back up there. Now it's up to us to maintain that position. But it's always better to be in first place."

The Rays got their customary ho-hum quality performance from their starting pitcher as Jeff Niemann notched his 10th win of the season, making the Rays the first team to have four 10-game winners this season. Unusual was the fact the Rays had two three-run homers, one each by Sean Rodriguez and B.J. Upton.

"How about us hitting two three-run homers tonight?" Maddon said. "Very unusual for us, but we'll take it."

Rodriguez's came in the first with the Rays trailing, 1-0. Carl Crawford drew a one-out walk and moved to second on Evan Longoria's single. One out later, Rodriguez jumped on a high 1-2 changeup from Brian Duensing and drove the ball over the 407 mark in center field, giving him seven homers for the season and the Rays a 3-1 lead.

Later in the game, when Twins center fielder Denard Span pulled into second base, he told Rodriguez he didn't realize that Rodriguez had hit the ball as well as he had.

"I told him, 'I was just hoping it would get over your head,'" Rodriguez said.

The Twins fought back in the third with Joe Mauer adding his second of three RBI singles on the night, and Drew Butera added a solo home run in the seventh to tie the score at 3.

Upton stepped to the plate with one out in the seventh after pinch-hitters John Jaso and Matt Joyce had drawn walks from Twins reliever Matt Guerrier. He watched two sliders pass for balls to get ahead in the count 2-0, which pleased him for having the restraint to not chase the sliders out of the strike zone.

"Anybody in that situation can quickly be 0-2," Upton said. "And, I happened to lay off of [them]."

Upton connected with Guerrier's third pitch, planting the ball into the left-field stands for his ninth home run of the season and a 6-3 Rays lead.

"Yeah, I can't lie, it felt pretty good," Upton said. "I've been trying to simplify things. I'm feeling all right up there right now."

Upton feeling all right at the plate might be better news for the Rays than moving into first place. Maddon elaborated on how crucial Upton swinging a hot bat could prove to be for the Rays' chances.

"It's very difficult to measure, but you know it's substantial in a positive way," Maddon said. "Him being able to look more like [he did in the 2008 playoffs] really increases our offensive output."

Joaquin Benoit pitched a scoreless eighth before Rafael Soriano survived a little excitement in the ninth to record the final three outs and pick up his 31st save of the season.

"We had our chances," Twins manager Ron Gardenhire said. "There were a couple of big innings out there to get things done, and they made pitches when they had to. A disappointing game for us, just for the fact that two innings out there, three runs in each inning, and they beat us."

Although the Rays moved back into sole possession of first place, the team took a realistic view of the situation.

"Obviously that's a good thing," Upton said. "But there's two months of baseball left. Especially with the firepower they have over there. We've got to keep doing the things we're doing. We're playing good baseball right now. We can't watch the scoreboard and see what they're doing. We just have to handle business, and whatever they do, they do it."

Bill Chastain is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.