ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- Maybe it's time to stop calling the Tampa Bay Rays surprising.
Carl Crawford sure thinks so after his second career grand slam, the biggest blow in a seven-run, seventh-inning rally, carried the Rays to an 8-3 victory over the Chicago Cubs and a three-game sweep of the team with baseball's best record Thursday night.
"We've been playing good," Crawford said. "After winning three games like this, it's going to be hard to argue that we're not one of the good teams in the league."
At 43-29, the Rays have the third-best record in the majors behind the Cubs and Boston Red Sox. They're 14 games over .500 for the first time in franchise history and have set a club record for victories before the All-Star break.
"It validates what we've been doing. It does give us more confidence. There's no question about that," Rays manager Joe Maddon said of the sweep. "I don't know how else I can say it. ... Hopefully it's going to catapult us even further."
The Cubs had been the only team in the majors that hadn't lost more than two games in a row this season. It looked as though it would remain that way when they chased Rays starter James Shields and took a 3-1 lead in the seventh.
But reliever Carlos Marmol (1-2) opened the door for Tampa Bay's biggest inning of the season by walking the first two batters he faced, then hitting the next two with pitches to force in a run and depart with the bases loaded.
"He's been extremely reliable. This sort of came out of nowhere," Cubs manager Lou Piniella said. "What are you going to do?"
Crawford hit Scott Eyre's second pitch into the right-field stands, putting Tampa Bay ahead 6-3.
"It's just been a struggle. We've got to piece it together, and we've got to keep our heads up and keep going," said Piniella, whose team returns home Friday for the start of a weekend series against the crosstown rival White Sox.
The Cubs are 3-4 since Alfonso Soriano went on the 15-day disabled list with a broken hand, but remain 3½ games ahead of second-place St. Louis in the NL Central because the Cardinals dropped their third straight to Kansas City on Thursday.
"We haven't been in a bad spell all year," Piniella said. "Well, we're in one right now, and hopefully at home, it will cure it and we go forward."
Grant Balfour (2-0) pitched 1 2/3 scoreless innings to get the win. It was the Rays' third sweep of a first-place team. They also took three straight at home from Boston April 25-27 and the Los Angeles Angels May 9-11.
Sean Gallagher pitched six strong innings for the Cubs, allowing an unearned run and four hits before the bullpen let the game get away. Mike Fontenot hit an RBI double off Shields, and run-scoring singles by Kosuke Fukudome and Ryan Theriot put Chicago ahead 3-1.
Shields, returning from a six-game suspension for his role in a bench-clearing brawl at Boston on June 5, allowed three runs and seven hits in 6 1/3 innings. He walked two and matched a season high with nine strikeouts.
The Rays' opening day starter has not won since beating the Angels with a one-hitter on May 9. He's 0-3 in seven starts since, including a 6-1 complete-game road loss to the Angels in the only other start he's made since the fight.
The Rays scored an unearned run in the second when Willy Aybar grounded into a double play. Gallagher kept Chicago close by not allowing any more damage in the inning, then wiggling out of bases-loaded jam by getting Crawford to ground out to end the fifth.
The Cubs broke through in the seventh, when Micah Hoffpauir had a leadoff double and Mark DeRosa walked. After Henry Blanco failed to get a sacrifice bunt down, Fontenot's ground-rule double bounced over the wall in left-center, tying the game 1-all and finishing Shields.
Fukudome's bloop single off Trever Miller drove in the second run of the inning, and Theriot's RBI single off Balfour put the Cubs up 3-1.
- The Rays signed high school SS Tim Beckham, the No. 1 pick in this month's baseball draft, to a minor league deal that included a $6.15 million signing bonus. The 18-year-old from Griffin, Ga., took batting practice before the game and threw out the ceremonial first pitch.
- Cubs RHP Carlos Zambrano, who left Wednesday night's loss because of discomfort in his right shoulder, will miss his next scheduled start Tuesday against Baltimore. He was initially set to have an MRI exam Thursday, but the Cubs decided to instead schedule an MRI arthrogram, a test in which dye is injected into the problem area to provide a more detailed look.
- Rays SS Jason Bartlett fouled a pitch off his left foot during batting practice and was scratched from the lineup. Rookie 3B Longoria made his first major league start at shortstop.