Prior to Sunday afternoon's contest, many of those in the Rays clubhouse weren't exactly sure how to approach Mariners starter R.A. Dickey. Here was a guy who primarily threw a knuckleball, but he could spot the fastball at 88-90 mph. But early in the game, a makeshift lineup of Rays hitters began attacking the "dancing medicine ball" of Dickey, and they continued to pile on in an 11-3 win in front of 30,336 at Safeco Field.
The Rays' 71st win of the season held significance since it surpassed the highest season win total in franchise history, a mark set in 2004 when the Rays went 70-91 under manager Lou Piniella.
By winning, the Rays also increased their lead in the American League East to 4 1/2 games over the second-place Red Sox, who lost to the White Sox, 6-5, Sunday. The Rays are now 3-1 on their current 10-game, three-stop road trip, and they improved to just three games under .500 on the road.
Missing from the Rays' lineup Sunday were the likes of Evan Longoria, Carl Crawford, Dioner Navarro and Jason Bartlett, which mattered little since Willy Aybar filled in at third and hit two home runs. Shawn Riggans started at catcher and had a three-run homer, and Eric Hinske started in left, contributing three hits.
"Willy just comes ready to play every day," Rays manager Joe Maddon said. "And I keep talking about him. I don't care what his batting average is, whatever, I just know he's ready to play and I appreciate that about him.
"We've talked about it all year. All of our guys have played. And they've been participating all year. When they're out there, they feel comfortable about it, they feel like they belong. They feel like they're part of something special, and that brings out the best in all of our guys."
While the hitting supplied plenty of juice, Maddon said the root of all baseball success begins with the pitching, and Edwin Jackson's performance stood on equal footing with the team's hitting.
"It always starts with the pitching for me, and we needed to get another good pitching performance today and we did," Maddon said. "He gave up runners along the way but kept making pitches to get himself out of jams. Up in the zone a little bit and got hurt by that early, but then started to make the adjustment coming down in the zone as the game was in progress."
Jackson allowed a solo home run to Jose Lopez in the second, then settled into a nice groove. For the afternoon, the 24-year-old right-hander allowed one run on seven hits and two walks while striking out two to earn his ninth win of the season.
"Eddie was great," Riggans said. "He's got electric stuff, throwing 97 and 98 [mph]. I went out [to the mound] in like the fourth or fifth inning and told him, 'Get the ball in the zone. Get the ball in the zone. Get it down. Let the guys swing at it.' It's hard to hit 97 mph even if you know it's coming. He had everything working today."
Jackson is now 9-7, which represents a huge turnaround. On Aug. 10, 2007, Jackson had a 3-11 record.
"His stuff is about the same," Maddon said when asked about the difference. "More strike-throwing. He still battles the walk on occasion, but he's getting better in that regard. Pitches primarily with his fastball, which I like. I just think his composure and the ability to stay out of the big inning is the big difference. That's the bane of most young pitchers, to get beyond that point where they don't give up that big inning which normally gets them out of the game. ... More than anything, I think he's avoided the big inning this year."
Jackson sees 2007 as a growth period.
"Look back on last year compared to this year, and it's a complete difference," Jackson said. "But at the same time, last year helped me get to where I'm at now."
So the Rays enjoyed a pretty nice Sunday afternoon in the Emerald City, thanks to a quality start and a healthy contribution by the team's reserves, which all added up to another day in first place.
"You can't really look at what we don't have," Riggans said. "You have to look at what we do have. And the guys that we do have are going to produce. ... Everybody's still got to go out there, and we're going to play hard and usually that will work out for some victories."
Bill Chastain is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.