PITTSBURGH -- What a first half the Tampa Bay Rays enjoyed as the majors' surprise team of the season. Their goal now? To make the second half just as stunningly good.
Backup catcher Shawn Riggans homered among his three hits and drove in two runs and the first-place Rays completed a remarkable first-half turnaround, beating the Pittsburgh Pirates 4-3 Sunday behind Andy Sonnanstine's seven effective innings.
Tampa Bay regained first place in the AL East for the first time since June 3 when the Boston Red Sox lost at Houston 3-2. The Red Sox and Rays open a three-game series at Tropicana Field on Monday night.
The Rays are 49-32, the most victories midway through a season by a team that had the majors' worst record the season before, according to Stats, Inc. They went 5-1 on a road trip to Florida and Pittsburgh and finished 12-6 in interleague play.
All this by a team that has never had a winning season or won more than 70 games since joining the AL as an expansion team in 1998.
"We went 5-1 on the trip and I felt we let one slip away," said closer Troy Percival, who pitched the ninth inning for his 18th save in 20 opportunities. "You get to that point, you've got a team that's doing something special."
The Rays' .605 winning percentage has been bettered at midseason by a team that was the worst overall the previous season only by the 1903 New York Giants (.643, 45-25).
"This is great, but it's only the first half," said Riggans, who has 15 RBI in 73 at-bats. "Nobody remembers the first half, everybody remembers the second half and the last day of the season. We've got a lot of work ahead of us. Interleague play is done now."
All the qualities that led to Tampa Bay's strong first half were visible: effective starting pitching, power from a fast-improving offense and timely hitting.
"I'm not going to sit here and say I expected us to be at this particular place in the standings," manager Joe Maddon said. "It's been an anonymous first half ... there's no one guy having a killer season, which makes it more appealing to me that we're at this juncture, knowing somebody's going to turn into a beast in the second half."
Sonnanstine (9-3) limited Pittsburgh to two runs, one earned, and is 6-0 after a Rays loss. Tampa Bay was a 4-3, 13-inning loser on Jason Bay's game-ending home run Saturday night.
Carlos Pena singled to start the eighth against Tyler Yates (3-1). Right fielder Xavier Nady overthrew third on Aybar's single, allowing Pena to score, and Aybar wound up at third. Riggans' single -- his career-high third hit -- made it 4-2.
"We talk about it all the time, going from first to third, but I tell you not everybody on this team would have tried that," Maddon said.
Nady leads NL outfielders with nine assists, and manager John Russell hopes he doesn't become too cautious based on one misplay.
"It hurts when you make that kind of mistake at that part of the game," Russell said. "The throw got away from him and at an inopportune time."
Interleague play hurt the Pirates again. They are 38-43 at the break, a three-game improvement from their 35-46 of last season, but were 5-9 against the AL. They are a major league-worst 62-103 in interleague play.
"Interleague was a challenge, and it will be good to get back into the division," Jack Wilson said. "But we still have the feeling we can roll off five, six, seven (victories) in a row ... maybe we haven't had that feeling the last few years."
Wilson doubled leading off the Pirates' sixth and moved up on Sanchez's sacrifice bunt. Catcher Riggans then left home plate unoccupied while trying to field Nate McLouth's slowly hit ball between the plate and the mound, so Sonnanstine's only option was to throw to first as Wilson scored from third to tie it at 2.
- Gorzelanny allowed fewer than three earned runs for the first time in seven starts.
- Rays 3B Evan Longoria failed to drive in a run for the first time during a seven-game hitting streak (14-33, .424).
- Riggans played for only the ninth time in 49 games.