MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — Evan Longoria is finally in Tampa Bay’s lineup again, and the Rays have celebrated his return this week with some of their best games of the season.

Their surge is hardly a coincidence.

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Matt Joyce hit a two-run homer and a two-run double, Jose Molina drove in three runs, and the Rays beat the Minnesota Twins 12-6 on Friday night to keep pace in the crowded American League wild card race with their ninth win in 12 games.

“Some people argue that can happen with economics. It can happen within a baseball team, too. So yeah, I like the trickle-down effect,” Rays manager Joe Maddon said. “I think it has impacted the bottom of the batting order, and you know Longo’s presence has made a difference. He’s been the spark.”

Jeremy Hellickson (7-7) won for the third time in four starts despite lasting only five innings. He had an 8-1 lead after a six-run second by the Rays, who batted around twice and won their fourth straight game. This is their longest streak since June 7-10. Tampa Bay won six in a row twice earlier in the season.

“From the get-go I think we were pretty excited about our team and the offense that we were going to have,” said Joyce, who is hitting right in front of Longoria. “We’ve had to deal with a lot of injuries, and gradually we’ve kind of got some guys back.”

Longoria drove in a run with a second-inning single, giving him four RBIs in four games since coming back from his 85-game absence caused by a partially torn left hamstring. Maddon spoke before the game about the boost Longoria has given to the team’s spirit just by being in the lineup, and the Rays improved to 19-8 this season when he is.

“In this game sometimes you can outthink yourself, so if it gives anyone in here a little bit of an edge or a lift or whatever, then I guess I’m doing my job,” said Longoria, 5 for 15 since his return.

The Twins had won nine of 13, but rookie Cole De Vries (2-3) was roughed up from the first pitch. Desmond Jennings hit the first of a season-high six doubles by the Rays and scored on Joyce’s no-doubt drive to right field. De Vries got only four outs and gave up seven hits, eight runs and 14 total bases, his ERA soaring from 3.81 to 4.77 in his 11th start of 2012.

“It just came on so quick and so hard that before I knew it I was already out of the game,” De Vries said.

The Rays started a 10-game trip in style, finishing one short of their season-high score, 13 at Miami on June 9. They started the day in what is essentially a five-team chase for the two wild card spots, one game behind Oakland and a half-game back of Baltimore and Detroit.

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Ben Zobrist, playing shortstop for the second straight game, was the only starter without a hit. He grounded into three double plays, tying the franchise record set by Javier Valentin in 2003.

But he made two slick pick-ups of ground balls up the middle, including one that ended the first inning with Josh Willingham on first. Willingham had driven in Joe Mauer with a single for his 85th RBI, third-most in the AL behind Miguel Cabrera and Josh Hamilton.

This was Mauer’s 12th three-hit game of the season, on the night when the first 20,000 fans through the gates got his replica sideburns as a souvenir.

Hellickson finished at least six innings in all five of his July starts, but he has totaled only nine innings in two August turns. Still, with the large early lead he breezed to another victory, despite allowing seven hits and three runs with two walks and three strikeouts.

Jeff Manship relieved De Vries and retired 11 straight batters until stumbling during a four-run sixth on Molina’s two-run single and B.J. Upton’s two-run double.

“You get knocked around like that early, and it kind of takes the fight out of you for a little bit,” Twins manager Ron Gardenhire said.

NOTES: Maddon said Longoria will stay as the DH on this trip and not move back to 3B. “If it were to happen it would be a great surprise,” Maddon said. … Rays LH J.P. Howell stretched his scoreless streak to 22 innings, tying RH Fernando Rodney for the longest in franchise history. … All-Star LH David Price (14-4, 2.49 ERA) will pitch for the Rays on Saturday night, trying to become the first in the franchise’s 15-year history to reach 15 or more wins in two seasons. RH Nick Blackburn (4-7, 7.42 ERA) will take the mound for the Twins for the 18th time this year.


Follow Dave Campbell on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/DaveCampbellAP
Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.

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