Lively bats keep Rays afloat as bullpen struggles

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — A slight grin spread across left fielder Sean Rodriguez’s face as he discussed the topic, one that stands as a welcomed break from talk of bullpen blunders and the future of Fernando Rodney’s role. For the moment, after an efficient victory on a (mostly) drama-free Sunday, the Tampa Bay Rays’ offense allowed for a more pleasant postgame vibe.
The previous five days, after all, were unkind to the Rays. They included four losses to American League East foes — two against the division’s best (New York Yankees) and two against its worst (Toronto Blue Jays).
The unforgiving window, which offered another crushing blow Saturday in the Yankees’ come-from-behind victory in 11 innings, featured two more blown saves by Rodney (he has five), two more reasons for the closer’s critics to call for a change, two more examples of a bullpen that appears shaky at best and staggering at worst.
But Tampa Bay’s 8-3 victory over New York on Sunday at Tropicana Field once again highlighted the Rays’ emerging power. The development has surprised in a season that began with pitching as their presumed strength, before stalwarts such as Rodney and left-hander David Price began to falter. The latest showcase occurred when Tampa Bay knocked left-hander CC Sabathia for seven runs and seven hits in seven innings, which proved more than enough behind an 8-1/3-inning outing by right-hander Alex Cobb.
“It’s nice to see that a lot of guys are being more consistent,” said Rodriguez, who went 1 for 2 with a 346-foot home run in the third. “That’s baseball. It’s real difficult to find that consistency. It’s real difficult. When you find it, it’s a nice little roller-coaster ride.”
A roller-coaster ride seems like a proper way to label the Rays’ recent existence. Since beginning the series against Toronto last Monday, they have scored no fewer than three runs each game. Before Sunday, since April 17, the Rays ranked second in the majors behind the Cleveland Indians in runs produced with 190 (5.4 per game).
Tampa Bay’s efficient bats Sunday were the latest example of a turnaround, which is often overshadowed by its bullpen’s theatrics. In the Rays’ first 13 games, through April 16, they ranked last in the AL in runs (39), batting average (.204), on-base percentage (.284) and slugging percentage (.305).
“It makes pitching a whole lot easier when you go out there and you don’t have to nitpick every pitch,” said Cobb, who improved to 6-2 with a 2.66 ERA in 10 appearances. “You just go after guys and have them put the ball in play and let your defense do the job. When you have a four-run lead, then you just go out there and you try to make them put the ball in play. It makes pitching so much easier.”
For the Rays, unpredictability has become the predictable through 49 games. This has been a season of bizarre umpire rulings against them (the episodes in Texas and Baltimore, among others). This has been a season when their reigning AL Cy Young Award winner has appeared frazzled and their flame-throwing closer, who converted 48 of 50 save chances last year, has looked flustered.
This has been a season when anything has seemed possible, from the odd to the curious, from the forgettable to the fantastic. Nothing appears off-limits.
Through it all, the Rays’ hitting has become an intriguing development, led by James Loney (.342 with 24 RBI) and Evan Longoria (.328 with 29 RBI). It seems unreasonable to expect the pace to continue — this is, of course, a game of cycles — but Sunday showed Tampa Bay’s ability to extend its power display. If the bullpen continues its struggles, streaky hitting will become all the more valuable.
“We’ve been doing the same thing we’ve been doing,” said center fielder Desmond Jennings, who went 1 for 5 with one RBI. “We’re just hitting well. I don’t feel like there’s anything we’re doing differently. It’s a long season. You have stints where the whole team’s hitting and the whole team’s on a slump. … You just never know.”
In this Rays season, you never do. After a week when their bullpen stumbled, their bats continued to strike.

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