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PETERSBURG, Fla. -- Hours before Tampa Bay tangled with the first-place Yankees on Monday night, somebody suggested to Rays skipper Joe Maddon how crucial this three-game series is to his struggling team.
"It's a big Monday night game. It's not a big series," Maddon bristled. "The one thing I have always tried to impress upon our players is to not give any more weight to any particular series or particular game."
When the Rays came from behind at Tropicana Field, capitalizing on first baseman Mark Teixeira's three-base error in the seventh inning for a stirring 4-3 squeaker, it was a huge win.
The Rays -- who owned the best record in the American League on May 4, when they led the AL East by 1 1/2 games -- have been in free-fall. They'd lost six of their last seven games and tumbled to fourth place, 7 1/2 games behind the streaking Yankees.
Regardless of what Maddon said, picking up the pieces and rebuilding this once-promising season is a priority. And it had to start Monday night in the nationally televised game against the Yankees, who are threatening to run away with the division. They'd won 22 of their last 29.
Yes, it was just one win, but you could sense how important it was in the players' eyes as they wobbled off the field to a standing ovation from the crowd of 21,742.
When the Rays lost to Detroit on Sunday, they fell to fourth place, the latest point in a season they've been that low in the standings since they finished fifth in 2007.
"It is somewhat tough," Yankees manager Joe Girardi said of the loss. "We had the lead a couple of times and weren't able to hold it. That makes it more difficult."
This game had the makings of another loss for the Rays. Poor defensive play in the first inning allowed the Yankees to take a 2-0 lead, and had it not been for a gritty performance by Matt Moore, the night could have turned out ugly.
"He does all the right things when adversity strikes," Maddon said of his young left-hander. "He does not show up his fielders, he does not become in any way negative toward anybody. I really think, when you do that as a pitcher, your defense wants to play for you even more."
After the first inning, the 23-year-old Moore blanked the potent Yankees until the seventh inning, when they manufactured a run without a hit to take a 3-2 lead.
"I was happy to get outs after those first two early runs," said Moore. "I really battled tonight and didn't lose focus. I was definitely aware of the situation.
"I was pretty pumped up. It was a good win for us -- the Yankees coming in here atop the division, and we've been on a skid. Hopefully, this is a sign for a lot of things to come."
I kept trying to coax Maddon into actually admitting, with the All-Star Game break looming, how important stalling the Yankees for one night was.
"It's always about tomorrow's pitchers, it's about how you react the next day," Maddon said. "Then, it's a big Tuesday night game. We just had a nice win a couple of days ago against Detroit's Justin Verlander. All of a sudden everybody gets excited about it, but we did not accomplish [a win] the next night.
"You have to truly celebrate for about 30 minutes and try to beat [Yankees' Tuesday starter] Ivan Nova. He's been really good against us, so they have all that going for them, and we have James Shields going -- a pretty good matchup. Their guy's good, our guy is good. I would anticipate the same kind of game -- a mistake here or there might open it up."
He kept trying to play down the importance of this series.
"The Yankees are playing really well, and we're not," he said. "We're missing some key people, and they're missing some folks, too. It's a long season, and we just have to trudge our way through it and see what happens at the end of the year.
"Last year on Sept. 1, we were 9 1/2 games out of first place. So, I don't get really riled up about these moments."
What has gone wrong since having the best record (19-8) in the AL?
"We've been playing very inconsistently," he said. "The defense has been sporadic. Offensively, we just came through our worst hitting month in club history. Obviously, there are definite areas to look at to get better, and we're working on that constantly. We have to be better consistently at the plate, better at-bats and hit the ball harder with more consistency. On defense, purely catching the ball and throwing it better.
"It's not like these have been difficult plays. These are definitely plays within our purview that we have just not been able to accomplish. From my perspective and the coaches' perspective, it's about coming out and working through it. It's about talking to your players and staying on their side, remaining positive. I believe that's the best way to come out of it."
Repeating: Monday night was important because the elements he rattled off that have created the skid could have caused the same result.
Instead, it was a 4-3 victory.
Maddon's theory is "if you take care of the seconds, the minutes, the hours and the days will take care of themselves. When you get to the point when things aren't going well, all of a sudden you want to take care of the days and forget the seconds. With us, I want us to reduce it, simplify it and become more fundamental. Eventually, you come out of it."
Pausing, he added: "The real measure of a group is when things aren't going well. It's easy to look good and be happy and interact properly when things are going well."
Monday night, against the best team in the American League, it started poorly for the Rays.
Given their recent pattern, they could have packed it in. Instead, they didn't, and the breaks came their way.
"The only way that happens is if you don't quit," said Maddon. "The moment you start to believe, 'Here we go again, woe is me' -- the victim's complex -- then, it just piles on, and you cannot permit that to happen. You just have to keep fighting, and eventually baseball rewards you. If you stop trying, the rewards are not forthcoming."
Hal Bodley, dean of American baseball writers, is Correspondent Emeritus for MLB.com. Follow him @halbodley on Twitter.