Rays show flashes of potential in Saturday’s rout but must tap the effort more often

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — They chopped grounders over the infield. They sprinted past home plate with rock music blaring over their heads. They scored and scored and scored, until they chased starter Drew Hutchison after five batters and roughed up reliever J.A. Happ for more runs.

The bottom of the sixth inning Saturday, a six-run woodshed spanking that lifted the Tampa Bay Rays to a 10-3 victory over the Toronto Blue Jays, was the jolt the reeling hosts needed after agonizing results in their previous two games — the kind of pick-me-up required to peel themselves off the turf before the All-Star break.

This had become an odd stretch for the Rays. There was the devastating three-run, ninth-inning home run by the Kansas City Royals’ Salvador Perez on Wednesday. There was Grant Balfour’s baffling fumble Friday, when the former closer allowed three runs, three hits and walked two in the Blue Jays’ comeback victory.

The performance Saturday looked more like what the Rays had expected when they opened this intriguing homestand, one that could influence front-office decisions later this month with the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline looming.

"The thing moving forward we’ve just got to understand — it’s got to be playing for one particular item and that’s to get to the playoffs and win," Rays manager Joe Maddon said. "We can’t deal with any kind of selfish thoughts, and we’ve got to play with our hair on fire."

Oh, the Rays crackled. There was the 1-0 lead after the first inning, the recovery in the fourth after trailing 2-1, then the six-run outburst in the sixth that gave them an 8-2 lead.

This beating of a division rival was severe. It was the kind that hinted at the life shown during their most recent 9-2 trip to Baltimore, New York and Detroit, a stretch that made this homestand so interesting to begin.

Only, at times throughout the past week, the spark that was seen often away from Tropicana Field was gone.

Rays vs. Blue Jays

The 6-0 loss to the Royals on Monday was a dud, but the result was forgivable, given that the Rays faced their former workhorse James Shields and arrived in the Tampa Bay region past 3 a.m. after a flight from Detroit. The losses Wednesday and Friday, though holding the same value as Monday’s outcome, felt darker and suggested that Maddon’s team had slid toward the doldrums of recent months.

This was a solid pivot. This was a turn from the din of recent days.

Right-hander Jake Odorizzi, filling in for sick left-hander David Price, allowed just three runs (two earned) and six hits with seven strikeouts in 6 2/3 innings. Centerfielder Kevin Kiermaier went 3 for 4 with three RBI. Designated hitter Matt Joyce went 1 for 3 with three RBI. Rightfielder Ben Zobrist went 1 for 3 with two RBI. They hit 6 for 14 with runners in scoring position.

"We really took advantage with runners in scoring position today and came up with a couple big hits there," Kiermaier said. "And we had guys on base, too, so that’s one thing. But when we needed the big hits, we got them today. Hitting is contagious, so it was our day to shine."

Effort has been no issue with this team most of the year. There’s enough pride on the roster, with veterans and young players alike, that fight should be expected.

The Rays have looked sloppy in their fall to the bottom of the American League East, but there has been no calculated decision to wave the white flag on a frustrating summer. If there’s one thing that can be said for Tampa Bay in the season’s first half, it’s this: There has been no quit job, though the temptation may be present because of human nature.

So it’s strange to watch the Rays score 10 runs without wondering where these fireworks remain bottled on most days. They scored 12 runs in a victory over the Baltimore Orioles on June 29. But before then, they last reached double-digit runs by producing 10 in a 14-inning victory over the New York Yankees on May 2.

Remember the three consecutive shutout losses against the Seattle Mariners and St. Louis Cardinals from June 8-10? Remember the calls for hitting coach Derek Shelton’s job?

Remember when watching the Rays try to eek out a hit with runners in scoring position was like observing oral surgery?

Performances like Saturday can be both refreshing and frustrating. It’s not hard to think, "Where has this full effort been — the solid starting pitching, the dangerous offense, the ability to swing back and not whither when faced with a deficit?"

But the season is long past the point of curiosity. These are who the Rays are: Talented but inconsistent, capable but mostly underwhelming. They are flawed.

Fortunately for them, the AL East has become the same. Entering Saturday, the Baltimore Orioles led the division at 51-41. Since divisions were realigned in 1994, such a record on July 12 would have been good enough to lead the AL East just once before — in 2000, when the Yankees were 45-38.

Scan the standings. An opening is there.

What the Rays showed Saturday was necessary to salvage their homestand, but the effort also revealed the life within their scarred season. These were more complete Rays, the Rays thought to be seen from the start, the Rays thought to be contenders most of the year.

"We are a good ballclub," Maddon said. "There’s a very thick ballclub."

The flashes are there. The teases tempt the imagination. The signs suggest the production can match the potential, if only it happened more often.

On this day the Rays showed how dangerous they can be, in one stellar inning, all the possibility there — all present to be tapped again and again, if they don’t run out of time first.

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