ST. PETERSBURG -- It was the biggest game of the year to date for the Texas Rangers. They made it their biggest victory, as well.
This will not erase their recent problems, but it will give them a big boost for the immediate future.
It does not matter that the form chart was not followed in this game. When it counted most, the Rangers found a way to defeat the Rays, 8-2, Thursday night. This victory moved the Rangers back into a tie with Tampa Bay for the AL Wild Card lead. But even more to the postseason point, it gave Texas the season series victory over the Rays, 4-3. If the two clubs finished tied for the Wild Card lead, the Rangers will win the head-to-head tiebreaker and have home-field advantage.
It was a complete performance: five stolen bases, four home runs, four double plays by the Rangers.
It did not even matter that Texas starter Yu Darvish, a genuine AL Cy Young candidate, was far from his top form. This contest was supposed to be tense and low-scoring. The Rays' roster had a combined .143 average against Darvish. Then again, lefty Matt Moore, 15-3 this season, was starting for the Rays. The Rangers entered hitting a combined .091 against Moore.
The record clearly showed that the Rangers had scored two runs or less in each of Darvish's last seven starts. So the reasonable expectation was that to win this game, Darvish would probably have to pitch a shutout. The Rangers might be able to win it, 1-0, on, oh, maybe a suicide squeeze.
Darvish struggled mightily in a 40-pitch first inning in which the Rays scored twice. But then the Rangers turned into a prolific, diverse offensive force.
There were three solo home runs in the third. The big lift was the first one, by first baseman Mitch Moreland, which tied the game. Moreland was the only left-handed hitter starting against Moore. Rangers manager Ron Washington said this before the game:
"I just felt Mitch has a chance to run into something."
Mitch ran into something all right. Good call, Mr. Washington.
A more novel means of scoring came to the Rangers in the fourth. With two out, Craig Gentry on third and Ian Kinsler on second, Elvis Andrus hit a relatively routine grounder to deep short. As Gentry scored, Andrus beat Yunel Escobar's throw to first. While this was occurring, Kinsler never hesitated. He beat the throw from first to the plate, scoring from second on a grounder to short.
"I hustled myself to first base," said Andrus, who also homered in the third and drove in three on the night. "It was a great play by Ian because he knew that [Escobar] would throw the ball to first base."
"That's the way we play," said Washington. "It's not the first time we've done that and it won't be the last. That's a part of our game."
Darvish, meanwhile, was grinding through innings well enough to record his first victory since Aug. 12. His pitch count was 109, and he had to depart after five innings, but he kept the Rays at two runs.
Against this backdrop of unexpected developments, in the 152nd game of this season, this victory gave the Texas club a legitimate lift. Before Thursday night, the Rangers had lost 13 of their last 16, a stretch that included a seven-game losing streak. They had fallen out of the lead in the AL West, into the thick of the Wild Card race.
But with the victory Thursday night and a split of the four-game series against Tampa Bay, the Rangers at least gained some traction.
This is no time to be disappointed about the division race. The Wild Card offers a chance. It's dicey with the one-game play-in format and it didn't work out for the 2012 Rangers, but it beats the alternative. This is the goal now, and it is more than merely a consolation prize.
"It's a chance," Washington said. "You just want a chance in the playoffs. It doesn't matter how you get there. Yeah, you'd rather win the division, because at least you have some games to play. The one-game format is what team plays best on the day. And it doesn't have to be the best team on the field. But at least you got a chance. I don't think you question a chance in the playoffs."
With six teams separated by 3 1/2 games in the AL Wild Card race, the Rangers, after a very difficult stretch, took a major step forward against a primary Wild Card opponent. It gave them the sense that something worthwhile had been accomplished.
"Things haven't been going right," Washington said, "but we haven't lost our resiliency."
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.