ST. PETERSBURG (AP) — His confidence seemingly growing with every at-bat, Carlos Pena is emerging from a season-long slump with flair.
The suddenly red-hot slugger homered for the sixth consecutive game, helping right-hander Matt Garza and the Tampa Bay Rays beat the Florida Marlins 6-5 on Saturday night.
“I keep saying I’m just grateful I have an opportunity to do it,” said Pena, whose .196 batting average is his highest in more than a month. “That is awesome, so I never lose sight of that.”
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The 2009 AL home run co-champion became the first player to go deep in six straight games since Frank Thomas did it for Oakland Sept. 5-11, 2006. He has seven homers during the streak, giving him 15 this season and a league-leading 131 since joining the Rays in 2007 — four more than Alex Rodriguez.
The major league record of eight consecutive games with a homer is shared by Dale Long (Pirates, May 19-28, 1956), Don Mattingly (Yankees, July 8-18, 1987) and Ken Griffey, Jr. (Mariners, July 20-28, 1993).
“I’m trusting myself a little bit more. I’m trusting my plan, and I’m focusing on seeing the ball and trusting that the right swing will come out when my eyes recognize the pitch I want,” Pena said, adding that he isn’t going to the plate looking to hit home runs.
“When you try, it doesn’t happen. So, I’ve been focusing on the process and executing the process. … Everything else just takes care of itself.”
Pena connected off right-hander Ricky Nolasco (5-5) in the first inning for a 2-1 lead. Carl Crawford and Sean Rodrgiuez also homered for the Rays, who maintained baseball’s best record (40-22) and a one-game lead over the Yankees in the AL East.
“I’m not going to say anything. … He can just keep doing what he’s doing,” Garza said. “I don’t care how he’s doing it, but keep doing what he’s doing.”
Garza (7-4) allowed four runs and nine hits in 5 2-3 innings. Relievers Grant Balfour and Joaquin Benoit got the Rays to the ninth inning, where Rafael Soriano sat the Marlins down in order to earn his 16th save in 16 opportunities.
Evan Longoria, Ben Zobrist and Reid Brignac also drove in runs for Tampa Bay, which rebounded from losing the opener of the Citrus Series 14-9. The Rays have won 11 of 14 games against the Marlins over the past two-plus seasons.
A night after drawing a crowd of just 19,338, attendance jumped to 29,963 — bolstered by a postgame concert featuring country music performer Dierks Bentley.
All three of Tampa Bay’s homers were solo shots off Nolasco, who allowed five runs and nine hits over 2 1-3 innings.
“I think tonight is just one of those games,” Florida manager Fredi Gonzalez said. “I’m going to chalk it up to just one of those games and go from there.”
The Marlins trailed 5-1 when Nolasco departed and wasted a couple of opportunities to cut into the deficit.
Hanley Ramirez tripled in the third, but was thrown out trying to score on a fly ball that right fielder Zobrist caught in foul territory. Dan Uggla and Cody Ross singled to begin the fourth, but Ross was thrown out trying to stretch his hit into a double.
Two batters later, Helms hit his first homer since Sept. 2, trimming Garza’s lead to 5-3. The Marlins scored the final run off the Rays starter, who walked two and struck out seven, when Ramirez grounded into a double play in the fifth.
NOTES: Jose Canseco homered in five consecutive games for Tampa Bay in 1999. … Marlins LF Chris Coughlan tripled in the first inning, extending his hitting streak to 12 games. … The Rays placed OF Gabe Kapler on the 15-day disabled list with a right hip flexor strain and recalled OF Justin Ruggiano from Triple-A Durham. … SS Jason Bartlett, out since May 30 with right hamstring strain, will begin a two-game minor league rehab stint with Durham on Monday. He’s expected to return to Tampa Bay’s lineup Wednesday at Atlanta.