Rays put offensive slump to rest with power display vs. Yanks

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — No one needs reminders of how quirky baseball can be. One trend can become stale with a few cracks of the bat. Narratives are always fluid, always changing, always making those who follow the game take what was trendy yesterday and toss it aside like a rotten banana for something fresher.

Baseball, unlike most anything else in sports, renews itself daily.

Two days ago, the Tampa Bay Rays were sorry at the plate. They looked like one of the American League’s worst offenses. They had limped through an eight-game road trip to Kansas City, Cincinnati and Baltimore scoring two or fewer runs six times. They returned to Tropicana Field on Thursday and received a 10-2 pounding from the New York Yankees.

It got so bad that hitting coach Derek Shelton’s name surfaced on local sportscasts and talk radio. Shelton’s name is hardly mentioned unless the Rays slog through an offensive funk. He’s like a fireman: It’s good for the casual fan if everything is humming and he exists in the background; if he surfaces in the public eye, something is wrong.

What was wrong seems better now after a 16-1 spanking of the Yankees on Saturday. After this result, all the sky-is-falling talk about the Rays’ hitting seems silly.

”We’ve been swinging the bats well the whole season without any luck,” Rays manager Joe Maddon said.

”We’re getting pitches, and we’re not missing them. I’m really proud of our guys the way they’ve hung in through these first couple weeks of the season.”

Maddon’s guys had 16 hits and five home runs in their latest victory. They mowed through all pitchers manager Joe Girardi had to offer. In the eighth inning, New York infielder Dean Anna entertained what was left of the crowd with ”fastballs” that clocked 72 mph and slower. This became a laugher after the sixth.

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It’s amazing how fickle baseball can make some people. After Thursday’s loss, some said the Rays would be fortunate to earn a split in this series. (They did at least that Saturday night.) After Thursday’s loss, some wondered if the Rays had hit rock bottom, the feeling captured in Sean Rodriguez grounding into a triple play. There was no shortage of negativity.

The script was flipped Saturday. It’s amazing what 48 hours can do. Yankees right-hander Ivan Nova allowed four home runs, a career high. Evan Longoria had one to become the Rays’ leader in career home runs with 164. Ryan Hanigan and Wil Myers both had two. All this followed the Rays’ 11-5 victory Friday night.

”I think yesterday was a big spark for us – to get that come-from-behind win,” Myers said. ”But hitting is contagious. You saw that the last two nights.”

”Offensively, I felt good swinging at balls in the zone and attacking pitches I can handle,” Hanigan said. ”It was an awesome team win top to bottom.”

All these are good developments for the Rays, but the sour reaction to their offense before Friday was understood. There were great expectations for this team after spring training: The talk of ”continuity,” the Grapefruit League title, the predictions for American League crowns and more among some of baseball’s most respected voices.

What happens at a season’s beginning and end tends to receive more attention than the dog days of June and July. It’s a reflection of our microwave, Twitter-driven sports culture. We want everything presented to us fast, no questions asked.

We want to be satisfied now.

So when they went 3-7 from April 6-17, it was easy to pile on and point fingers. Myers? Not doing enough. Longoria? Same. Ben Zobrist? Ditto.

That’s not to say that criticism was wrong. No one did much of anything during the Rays’ recent dry spell. They entered this series ranked 26th in runs scored and were tied for 26th in hits.

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But the urgency was misguided. Unless you’re talking about a cellar-dweller like the 2013 Houston Astros, fortunes will change. The baseball season is too long for results not to swing back to the mean for teams with quality rosters. That’s what the Rays proved the past two nights.

So the results Friday and Saturday were a big ”Just chill” to all who panicked about the Rays after Thursday. Offense in baseball can be a funny thing. It can come in painful drips. It can come in waves. It can frustrate. It can surprise.

”It’s good, and it’s nerve-wracking,” Longoria said of the offensive burst Saturday. ”We scored a ton of runs today, and we had great at-bats. You never want it to be really, really high and then really, really low.”

The Rays received a downpour of production the past two days. Will it continue at this pace? Of course not. But Saturday, they provided 16 reasons why it’s misguided to waste too much energy worrying about April trends that will be forgotten for the newest thing come May.

You can follow Andrew Astleford on Twitter @aastleford or email him at aastleford@gmail.com.