With still more than a month to play, no one would have called Monday's series finale against the Tigers a must-win game for the Rays.
Given recent developments and the difficulty of what lies ahead, though, it isn't a major stretch to say it was one of the most important games the defending American League champions have played this year.
The Rays won it 11-7, putting the previous day's morale-flattening, late-inning loss behind them and seizing some momentum for a three-game showdown with the Red Sox that begins tonight at Tropicana Field.
They picked up a half-game on the Red Sox, who had the day off Monday, and sit five games back in the wild-card standings with 32 remaining. By Thursday night, they could be as close as two or as far back as eight games.
With six games against the Red Sox over the next 13 days, but also a slew of tough games with the Yankees and others, the Rays gave themselves a chance.
"Today was really big," winning pitcher James Shields said. "That was a really tough loss for us (Sunday), and the way our team came back today shows me a lot of character."
Said Manager Joe Maddon, "It's good to go home and have a win in the back of your mind as you walk into your clubhouse. You've got Boston coming to town. It's a much better feeling walking through the door."
Facing Jarrod Washburn (9-8), a former Seattle Mariner who was 12-3 with a 2.59 ERA against them, the Rays turned some early bloop hits into a 14-hit, seven extra-base hit attack with a lineup that had Carl Crawford on the bench and Gabe Kapler batting second.
They scored six runs with their first six batters - no major-league team had done that since St. Louis at Pittsburgh on Aug. 12, 2003 - and kept the pressure on with one run in the fifth, one in the sixth and three in the seventh.
Carlos Pena hit his AL-leading 38th home run, a two-run shot in the first inning, and finished August with 12 home runs, the second most in any month for a Ray behind his record of 13 in September 2007.
Jason Bartlett, already in double-digit home runs for the time in his career, launched his 12th of the season in the sixth inning. Evan Longoria matched a season high with three runs scored.
Pena and Bartlett each went 3-for-5, and Pena drove in four runs.
"I'll say this, and I mean it very sincerely," Maddon said of Pena. "That's the best I've seen him swing the bat - for this little stretch - since he's been here. That's the best mechanically correct swing he's had, and I'm really enjoying watching it."
Shields (9-10) may have been tempted to rub his eyes and check the scoreboard again when he trotted out to pitch in the bottom of the first. In his previous 20 starts, the Rays had scored a total of four runs for him in the opening frame.
The Opening Day starter put the head start to good use. While he did give up four earned runs (five total) - Carlos Guillen hit two two-run homers off him - Shields kept the Tigers from ever seriously threatening.
The Rays salvaged a 2-2 split in the four-game series with the AL Central-leading Tigers and finished their road trip at 4-3.
Yet, they were left to lament two games that got away: a 3-2 loss at Toronto last Wednesday, when J.P. Howell suffered his seventh blown save; and a 4-3 loss to Detroit on Sunday, after Grant Balfour gave up a three-run homer to Placido Polanco in the eighth inning.
Had they held on in those two, the Rays would be coming home off a 6-1 trip.
"It came close to being a spectacular road trip," Maddon said. "It was not. It was a good road trip. We'll take it."