ST. PETERSBURG -- The Rays still had the worst record in baseball following Sunday's 5-2 win over the Astros. But the team is making strides in the right direction.
Rather than the immense work that needs to be done to even sniff a pennant race, the grind becomes winning one series at a time. And that's what the Rays (31-46) did by claiming the four-game series with the Astros.
"We did win this series, and it actually balances out the previous one, so I'm kind of digging on that," Rays manager Joe Maddon said.
The series win marked the Rays' third at Tropicana Field this season. They are 8-14-3 overall in series play this season. Meanwhile, they have won seven of their past 11 games after dropping 14 of 15. Five of those wins came against the Astros.
Solid pitching and timely hitting led the way Sunday. Nowhere was that timely hitting more evident than in the sixth, when the Rays posted a much-needed crooked number.
Trailing, 2-1, the Rays began a sixth-inning rally when Ben Zobrist drew a leadoff walk from Dallas Keuchel. Brandon Guyer followed with a bunt single before Evan Longoria singled to load the bases. One out later, Yunel Escobar belted a single to right to drive home two. Longoria moved to third on the play when George Springer bobbled the ball in right.
Longoria then scored the Rays' third and final run of the inning when Sean Rodriguez grounded into a forceout, giving the Rays a 4-2 lead. Rodriguez's sacrifice fly in the eighth added an insurance run.
"I felt good, and this game can be pretty ruthless sometimes," said Keuchel, who went the distance for the Astros en route to his fifth loss of the season. "I was about a centimeter from getting a double play with Escobar up there. ... They got one through the hole, and, once again, that was the difference."
The Rays are 9-for-21 with runners in scoring position in their past two games, including a 4-for-8 performance Sunday.
"I'd like to see it become a trend," Maddon said, adding, "this can become contagious."
Erik Bedard got off to a slow start when leadoff batter Dexter Fowler ambushed him by hitting the starter's first pitch of the game into the left-field stands for a 1-0 Astros lead.
The Rays answered in the bottom half of the inning when Longoria singled home Zobrist with one out to tie the score at 1.
An overturned call in the third led to the Astros' second run. Jonathan Villar doubled to lead off the inning but was called out when he tried to steal third. Manager Bo Porter challenged the call, and the decision went Houston's way. One out later, Jose Altuve singled to center to drive home Villar for a 2-1 lead.
The replay cameras continued to go against the Rays when Desmond Jennings tried to steal home with two outs in the bottom of the third. The Rays had runners on second and third with Longoria at the plate. Keuchel had just thrown ball two to make the count 2-0 when Jennings broke for the plate after catcher Carlos Corporan threw the ball back to Keuchel.
Keuchel made a rushed throw to the plate, and Corporan tagged out Jennings, who slid head first. Maddon challenged home-plate umpire Brian Knight's call, but the call was confirmed and the side was retired.
Maddon, who maintained that he still thought Jennings was safe, called Jennings' attempt at stealing home a "great play" because the Astros were unlikely to pitch to Longoria in that situation.
Bedard, who could become the odd-man out of the rotation when Jeremy Hellickson returns, did nothing Sunday to make that looming decision an easy one. The veteran left-hander, who played for the Astros last season, allowed two runs on seven hits and a walk while striking out eight in 5 1/3 innings en route to a no-decision.
Juan Carlos Oviedo, Grant Balfour, Jake McGee and Joel Peralta added a scoreless 3 2/3 innings to wrap things up. Peralta pitched the ninth rather than McGee -- who has been the designated closer of late -- because the Astros sent their middle of the order to the plate in the eighth and McGee was a better fit.
The Rays have a long way to go, but the overall vibe in their clubhouse on Sunday felt more like that of recent years.
"We won," Longoria said. "That's the bottom line, and that's really, at this point, all I care about. We did some good things today, and against a tough pitcher. Keuchel's been throwing the ball really well, and I think we proved something to ourselves as a team.
"We've been kind of getting it put to us against good lefties, and with this lineup today, we took good at-bats and got hits when we needed them."
Bill Chastain is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.