After a dominating performance over the A's on Monday night that saw the Rays win, 13-4, for their fourth consecutive win, the team moved to 20-20 on the season and is beginning to look like the guys America fell in love with in 2008.
"In this game, you're always looking for the .500 mark to begin with, and then you want to move beyond that, but you have to get back there first," Rays manager Joe Maddon said. "In spite of our struggles early on, I just think we're playing a sharper game of baseball right now. And as we continue to pitch better and catch it, we're going to get our share of the wins."
Everything went the Rays' way Monday night, especially for starter Jeff Niemann and hot-hitting Jason Bartlett.
Lately, the Rays' bullpen has been begging for the starters to go deeper into the games. Niemann had caused his fair share of early innings for the bullpen with just 11 1/3 innings of work in his previous three starts. But Monday night he looked like the pitcher the Rays projected him to be when they selected him out of Rice University with the fourth pick of the 2004 First-Year Player Draft.
The 6-foot-9, 280-pound right-hander put forth his best effort of the season, holding the A's to three earned runs on eight hits and did not walk a batter in eight innings worked to pick up his second consecutive win and move to 4-3 on the season. Jason Isringhausen pitched the ninth to make his first appearance in a Rays uniform to finish out the contest.
"It was great feeling being out there in the seventh and eighth innings," Niemann said. "Just go out there and throw your game and let the defense work. Had a big lead, and it took the pressure off me early, so it was nice."
Niemann also felt thankful to finally help out the bullpen.
"That was a huge plus, they've been working their tails off down there, and to give them a day and have Izzy come in and get his first outing of the year was great," Niemann said.
Maddon claimed that he could tell early on that Niemann would do well because of his demeanor.
"He was able to make adjustments within the count and not let it get away from him," Maddon said. "And that's why he was able to pitch that deeply."
Bartlett once again fueled the Rays' offense on Monday.
After falling a home run short of the cycle Sunday, the Rays' quiet man had three hits, scored three runs and had five RBIs Monday, raising his average to .384 for the season to climb to second place in the American League batting race.
"Just let me do my thing and keep it under the radar," Bartlett said. "Try to ride it as long as I can. ... I feel good. I've got a good approach up there right now. I've been hitting a long time, it could leave you any day, so I've got to keep working at it. So, like I said, I've got to keep riding it."
Maddon called Bartlett "bulletproof" for the way he currently is playing.
"He's got a really good hack going right now," Maddon said. "The ball that he hit to left-center [for a triple] was like the Spalding Guide to the Right-Handed Swing. I really enjoyed watching that. His whole game is at a higher level right now."
Hitting aside, Bartlett's biggest impact on Monday night's game might have come via his legs. When A's catcher Kurt Suzuki allowed a passed ball in the first inning, Willy Aybar scored easily from third, while Bartlett, who had been on second, started running when the ball got loose and never stopped until he had scored the sixth run.
"I know that the moment that happened [Bartlett] was not just thinking about going to third base," Maddon said. "The moment he saw the ball get beyond the catcher, he's waiting to see how far it is, and that means he's going to run hard through third base. A lot of guys won't run hard to third base and then not be able to make that play. And he did. He was in great stride all the way on the play.
"He's a good baseball player. He sees things on the field. He asks very good questions. He's aware, he's baseball aware. He was raised properly in a baseball sense. He sees things. And there's other guys who don't see anything."
If 13 runs on nine hits wasn't enough, Ben Zobrist finished off Monday night's highlight reel with a circus catch in right field that saw him charge after a foul ball and get a glove on it just as the padded wall cut his legs from under him to flip him into the stands. Zobrist held his glove in the air to show he had caught the ball before standing with an ear-to-ear grin on his face.
"Best catch I've ever made," Zobrist said.
Maddon said he was concerned for Zobrist's safety, then he smiled, eased back in his chair and said, "Wasn't that beautiful."
There were a lot of beautiful things for the Rays on Monday night, but nothing more beautiful than getting back to even for the season.
Bill Chastain is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.