Consider another step taken Tuesday as Rays starter Jake Odorizzi outperformed Cardinals All-Star starter Adam Wainwright in Tampa Bay's 7-2 victory at Busch Stadium. It wasn't so long ago, on June 10, that Wainwright defeated Odorizzi in St. Petersburg, Fla., sending the Rays flailing to a season-worst 18 games below .500.
Six weeks later? Well, the Rays are surging. Since that defeat, Tampa Bay is 24-11, five games below .500 and, with Tuesday's victory, just 5 1/2 games out of a playoff spot in the American League Wild Card.
"I believe we're one of the best teams in the American League. Period," Maddon said. "We didn't play like that earlier in the season. We could not get everybody dialed in on the same page and the same time. We were just an awkward team to watch."
The Rays were anything but in winning their season-best sixth straight game. To do so, Odorizzi needed to first calm his emotions. The Highland, Ill., native -- who grew up 30 minutes from downtown St. Louis and watched Wainwright record the final out in the 2006 World Series and attended Game 7 of the 2011 Fall Classic at Busch Stadium -- saw the fifth pitch he threw, to leadoff hitter Matt Carpenter, sail over the center-field wall.
The homer was followed by a six-pitch walk of Kolten Wong, but catcher Jose Molina helped erase Wong with a perfect throw to second base on a steal attempt.
"They had it going on, he gets on and we pick up an out on the bases," Maddon said. "That is absolutely incredibly huge."
"I think the turning point of settling down was [that]," Odorizzi said. "Getting that first out out of the way changed my whole perspective. I was like, 'OK, now we go.'"
With the help of his first Major League at-bat -- which marked his first live appearance in a batter's box since he was at Highland High School -- the right-hander evened the score in the second. His first career RBI came with a safety-squeeze bunt that scored James Loney from third to make it 1-1.
On the mound, Odorizzi settled into a groove after the out at second. He retired 14 of the next 17 hitters he faced through the fifth inning, scattering two singles and a walk.
"I didn't think I would have much nerves to be honest, and then I definitely had a lot of nerves," Odorizzi said. "I was nervous, I was excited, I was just about anything you could be. I was on cloud nine that first inning. It's not the way I wanted to start off, but that's a good way to get settled in and bring you back to reality really quickly."
The Rays' offense put him in line for the win with a rare burst of offense against Wainwright. They picked up just two hits in the fifth -- both doubles -- but scored five runs with the help of three walks, a hit batter and a Cardinals error. In the ninth, Evan Longoria clubbed a solo home run to cap the scoring and set a Rays record with his 593rd career RBI, passing Carl Crawford.
Wainwright hadn't allowed more than two runs in seven consecutive starts before the Rays chased him in the fifth.
"We played really well," said Maddon, who watched from the clubhouse after being ejected in the third. "[Odorizzi] was a little bit amped up, and then he had eight strikeouts. Really started making some great pitches after that, the at-bats were fabulous."
Odorizzi started the sixth with another strikeout, but a second solo homer, from Matt Holliday, followed by a single and later a walk, sent him to the dugout to rare applause from the road crowd at 106 pitches. He finished with 5 2/3 innings, allowing five hits and two runs, the eighth straight outing in which he has allowed three runs or fewer.
"[Pitching here] adds to the distraction," Cards manager Mike Matheny said. "That adds to the possibility of things going in a bad direction. But he was as sharp today if not more so than the last time we saw him."
This latest victory has the Rays continuing their attempt to make history, which Maddon alluded to. No AL team in the last century has lost 53 of its first 100 games -- as the Rays had entering Tuesday -- and advanced to the postseason.
One game and one series at a time has them now inching their way back to the surface.
"All of a sudden, the boys are getting their swagger back," Maddon said. "This is the group that we should be right here."