ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — “Swarm” has been the buzzword of late within the Tampa Bay Rays.
It is a catchy and appropriate term used to describe what their offense has become recently: An efficient, consistent attack that has sparked a run that includes six consecutive wins, 10 victories in their past 11 games and 13 triumphs in their past 16 to lift them to sole possession of second place in the American League East.
This “swarm” features contagious offense, an invisible but real concept (so says infielder/outfielder Kelly Johnson) that lifts individuals to add to the group momentum that is building. On Tuesday night, in the Rays’ 4-1 victory over the Minnesota Twins at Tropicana Field, the latest example of this idea was found in outfielder Matt Joyce.
Before Tuesday, Joyce had gone 70 plate appearances without an RBI, the most recent occurring in a victory over the Kansas City Royals on June 15. But in the fourth inning here, his fortunes changed: With two outs, he smacked a 91-mph fastball from right-hander Kyle Gibson for a single to center field that scored Desmond Jennings and Luke Scott.
That was all the Rays required. The swarm struck again.
“The team has been playing well over the last couple weeks here, and we got on a nice little roll,” said Joyce, who finished 1 for 3. “We’re starting to build a lot of confidence in each other right now. Any big moment that comes up in the game, we have a lot of confidence in any guy that is in that position one through nine. I think that’s how good teams win. I think that’s how they become really great teams.”
The Rays will need players like Joyce to produce if they are to become one of the American League’s best. Since Tampa Bay took two of three games against Detroit at Tropicana Field from June 28-30, each day has passed with the feeling that someway, somehow, the Rays would find a way to score with help from faces both expected and not.
Mostly, Tampa Bay has done what it must so far in this 14-game stretch that could serve as insurance for more challenging weeks to come. The Rays have handled the Houston Astros, Chicago White Sox and Twins — all worse-than-average, to put it kindly — with timely hitting and a next-guy-up mentality at the plate.
Meanwhile, Joyce had lived empty-luck moments this season with runners in scoring position that made him think, “Man, just give me a break here.” But this is a time when anything for anyone within the Rays seems possible. This is a period that, not surprisingly, has made manager Joe Maddon say, “Right now we’re starting to play up to our capabilities.”
“We’ve lost too many games earlier this season where we pretty much had them in tow and gave them up,” Maddon said. “But now we’re getting to the point where we’re locking them down.”
Joyce is the latest exhibit of a rising confidence that has lifted many in the Rays clubhouse. He stopped a forgettable skid: The 20-game RBI drought was the longest of his four-plus years with the Rays and second-longest of five-plus year career (only behind a 26-game RBI-less run from Aug. 25, 2008, to April 7, 2009).
Will the upward movement continue? Joyce considers it possible.
Why not? Everything else for Tampa Bay seems to be working.
“Obviously, there have been a lot of situations where I have come up with runners in scoring position, whether you hit the ball hard right at somebody — whatever the case may be — things like that cross your mind,” he said. “It’s hard not to think about it. It’s hard not to get frustrated in those situations. … Maybe (the two-RBI night) will get the ball rolling.”
For the Rays, plenty has rolled in this window against opponents they should handle. So far, so good, the production from so many people.
“Momentum is very real, and so is contagious offense,” Johnson said. “Getting guys hot and other guys hitting — it gets everybody rolling. Your at-bats come quicker. There’s less time on the bench. It’s just more fun when everybody is involved.”