ST. PETERSBURG, FLA. – Many Twins players left spring training believing this could be a .500 team this season. No, that's not what competing is all about, hoping for mediocrity. But after suffering through 291 losses over the three previous seasons, finishing .500 — to them — would be turning the corner.

The Twins beat Tampa Bay 9-7 on Thursday to win the three-game series at Tropicana Field, finish 3-3 on their road trip and — look here — come home 11-10 on the season. Joe Mauer is batting only .264 and is on a Rob Deer-like run of strikeouts. Yet the Twins are winning because the offense has been the surprise of the early season, averaging 5.5 runs a game.

All's well so far. But their big test is coming.

"I don't think we're played too many slouches lately," manager Ron Gardenhire said, "and I don't think there are many slouches in this league anymore. You just have to keep grinding. Fortunately for us, we're really swinging pretty good."

Is it a small sample size, or a sample of something that will sustain all season? The Twins just won a series in Tampa Bay for the first time since 2006, against a team that made the playoffs three of the past four seasons. And the schedule doesn't lighten up any time soon.

Detroit, the three-time defending American League Central champion, visits Target Field for a three-game series this weekend. The glittery Dodgers and their record $234 million payroll come in after that. Baltimore, which went 85-77 last year, follows after that — and the Orioles might have injured All-Star third baseman Manny Machado back in the lineup by then.

The Twins then hit the road for four games at Cleveland and three at Detroit. Then they head home to play David Ortiz and Boston. Including Tampa Bay, that's a stretch of 19 of 22 games against teams that made the 2013 playoffs.

That gets them through May 15. The deepest the 2013 Twins were above .500 was May 13, when they were 18-17 before going on a 10-game losing streak. If they remain at or near .500 after their upcoming march over hot coals, they will have earned it.

"We've faced really good teams in the first 20 games," second baseman Brian Dozier said. "It's doesn't matter to me. We're playing good baseball in all aspects of the game. It doesn't matter who we play."

The Twins were thwarted by Tampa Bay ace David Price on Tuesday but outlasted the Rays bullpen in Wednesday night's 6-4, 12-inning victory. Thursday, they took advantage of some shaky pitching by veterans Erik Bedard and Heath Bell to build a big lead and held on from there.

They made Bedard throw 41 pitches in the first inning, when they scored three runs. They added another run in the second before the Rays crept within 4-3. Bell replaced Bedard in the fifth inning and got lit up, with .172-hitting Aaron Hicks clubbing a three-run homer, his first home run of the season.

Kurt Suzuki and Sam Fuld each had three hits for the Twins, with Suzuki driving in three runs and Fuld two. The Twins lead the majors with 111 walks. They have scored at least nine runs five times in the season's first 21 games after doing it seven times all last season. They scored nine runs Thursday without any help from AL RBI leader and Wednesday night hero Chris Colabello.

"They are really grinding out at-bats on a different level right now," Rays manager Joe Maddon said, "and their bullpen was kind of — not kind of — they were very stingy. I think it's a combination of those two things that has given them a different look right now."

The Twins will find out what they are made of over the next 19 games as they face the best of both leagues. But they are playing with confidence and believing they have upside — and Mauer hasn't started hitting yet.

"It's a special group. We have a lot of character, not just the wins but in all games," Colabello said. "It's just a scrappy group. You rally around each other and see fire in people and the desire to win, it is pretty cool."

La Velle E. Neal III •