Ben Francisco was introduced to the Rays' postgame victory party Sunday. Initiated might be a better word since Francisco, who joined the team Saturday, was the player of honor after his contribution to Tampa Bay's 9-4 victory against the Blue Jays at the Rogers Centre.
"It's awesome," Francisco said. "I can't wait for (today). I hope we win again."
That is the goal, since the Rays open a three-game series today at Tropicana Field with a Labor Day matinee against the first-place Yankees.
The Rays trail the Yankees by 31/2 games and the second-place Orioles, who hold the second spot in the wild-card standings, by 11/2 games. For a team that still has designs on winning the division title and going to the World Series in October, these three games with the Yankees are big.
"No doubt we can catch the Yankees," Rays manager Joe Maddon said before Sunday's game. "But you got to catch Baltimore first."
This was seen as a big series as soon as the 2012 schedule was released, and nothing has transpired during the first five months of the season to change that view.
"We're right in the thick of it, and it's just where we want to be," Evan Longoria said. "We have plenty of games left against the people we need to have them against to prove that we're deserving of a playoff spot, so it's going to be fun. This is what we play for."
The Rays had a season-high 18 hits Sunday to back David Price, who won his American League-leading 17th game, and finish a 3-4 road trip with a pair of wins.
Francisco homered, doubled and drove in two runs. Carlos Peña had two hits, including his first home run since his game-winner Aug. 18 in Anaheim. Evan Longoria drove in the first run of the game with a double. Jose Molina and Desmond Jennings had RBI singles. Ben Zobrist drove in two runs in the six-run second with a single.
The Rays celebrated Sunday's win and quickly turned their attention to the division-leading Yankees, who, as Maddon said, they feel they can catch during the final 28 games of the season.
"We've felt like that all year long," Price said. "It will be a big series with us. Hopefully we can win the series first and foremost and then go for the sweep. Try and win Game 1 with (James) Shields and take it from there."
Shields flew home Sunday ahead of the team so he could be rested for today's start.
"This is one of two series we're going to be playing them in this month, and yeah, it is huge," Shields said before Saturday's game. "Obviously we want to try and sweep them, but we're going to try and win the series and at least gain a game on them."
Then, noting the new month, Shields added, "This is time to go, time to win. We've been in this situation before. Obviously last year helped us out as far as how confident we are going into September. If we keep pitching and doing our part and everybody does their part I think we're going to be fine."
It was a losing road trip in terms of wins and losses, and some of those losses were tough. The Rays were shut out twice on the trip — once in each city — and lost a game in Toronto when Elliot Johnson was thrown out at the plate for the final out of a one-run game. Still, they managed to outscore both teams — 13-11 in Texas and 15-12 in Toronto.
"What are you talking about our offense? The offense is fine," Maddon said with a smile after Sunday's game. "I like the fact we were down as badly as we were (losing the first two games in each city), losing some really difficult games, the kind of games that really test your ability to throw things in the trash can and we did. We came back and played well. Really proud of the way we handled all of these moments."
Even bigger moments await beginning today.
"I think we said at the beginning of spring training it was going to be a race to the end," B.J. Upton said, "and that's exactly what it's come down to."