Dominant pitching gives Rays critical boost

Zeroes or heroes? Sometimes in baseball you can be both at once.
That’s certainly what two young guns of the Tampa Bay Rays rotation proved this weekend in Anaheim, with rookie Matt Moore and 2011 AL Rookie of the Year Jeremy Hellickson posting consecutive goose-eggs against the Los Angeles Angels – and the bullpen doing the same in a clutch supporting role.
All those “0’s” added up to one big weekend for the Rays at a critical juncture of their nine-game road trip – with the final leg starting tonight against the surging Oakland A’s.
First came Tampa Bay’s 3-0 win Saturday night, fueled by 6.1 innings of four-hit pitching by Moore and the relief trio of Jake McGee, Joel Peralta and Fernando Rodney closing it out with one hit and five strikeouts between them. The win was made even sweeter with Rodney earning his 29th save in 30 attempts against the Angels team that dumped him as closer last season.
Then came Sunday’s 2-0 shutout orchestrated by Hellickson, who hurled six innings of two-hit, no-walk baseball while battling a sick stomach from the start of the game. Though he threw up five times by his own count during the afternoon, Hellickson hung tough and out-dueled former Cy Young Award winner and new Angel, Zach Greinke.
Once again, the pen pinned the final scoreless innings on Los Angeles, with Kyle Farnsworth and Joel Peralta pitching perfect innings and Rodney escaping a scare in the ninth for his AL-best 30th save (tying him with Baltimore’s Jim Johnson).
Let’s put what the Rays did in context: They’ve only enjoyed consecutive shutout wins four times in franchise history – with the last time coming in 2008 against none other than the Angels. And the performances couldn’t have come at a more important time, with the fight for the second Wild Card spot heating up and Tampa Bay desperately trying to establish some traction in the race.
Even after winning two of three in Baltimore to start the road swing last week, their chances of taking down the Angels didn’t look promising – especially after another listless offensive night Friday in a 3-1 loss to start the series in Anaheim.
The Angels’ opening win only served to tighten their grasp on the first Wild Card spot, with Oakland, Baltimore and Detroit all ahead of the Rays in the scramble for the second spot.
But fast-forward two days ¬– and their circumstances don’t look nearly as dire. For one thing, Tampa Bay starters have now thrown 23 consecutive scoreless innings (including five from Alex Cobb in his losing performance Friday). And instead of a record teetering just two games above .500, the Rays are gave themselves some welcome breathing room again with a mark of 53-49 – tied for second in the AL East with Baltimore.
The Wild Card deck has been shuffled now, too. Oakland, in spite of its 6-1 road loss Sunday to the Orioles, has moved into the top position at 55-46 on the strength of 18 wins on its last 22 games. The Angels are now a half-game back at 55-47. Detroit is next at 54-48, with Tampa Bay and Baltimore just two games behind Los Angeles for the No. 2 seed.
Of course, there’s plenty of baseball remaining to be played and given the Rays’ unpredictability this season – with an offense still mired with a .231 batting average– it’s dangerous to read too much into the current uptick in their fortunes.
The Rays have displayed a pattern this season of digging themselves out of holes with dramatic comebacks and stellar individual efforts, only to tumble right back in. Their season-long list of injuries, especially the loss of Evan Longoria since May 1, has certainly contributed to their inconsistency – at the plate and in the field. Yet seeing the difference a healthy Matt Joyce makes these days – and now Sam Fuld – suggests that things could be taking a turn for the better. And more relief is around the corner.
Longoria is the midst of what’s planned as a short rehab assignment as a designated hitter with Durham (going 1-for-3 with an RBI Sunday). He could be back in Tampa Bay’s lineup as soon as the next home stand as DH, and left handed DH/first baseman Luke Scott is nearing the end of his stay on the DL with an oblique strain. That would give the Rays a semblance of being at full strength for the first time in a long while, just as the race heats up.
But first, they have a date in Oakland against an A’s team more than capable of bursting the Rays’ current bubble.
The Rays have traditionally had more trouble at the Oakland Coliseum than any other AL stadium – with a 19-46 record (.292) to prove it. Prior to manager Joe Maddon’s arrival in 2006, they were 6-30 but have gone 13-16 in Maddon’s tenure. Still, the two teams have broken even at 24-24 since the start of 2007.
The A’s, who took two of three from Tampa Bay at the Trop in early May, will send righthander A.J. Griffin (3-0, 2.25 ERA) to the mound Monday night at 10:07 ET. The Rays counter stellar lefty David Price ((14-4, 2.57), who always gives them a chance to win. Tuesday night, James Shields (8-7, 4.52) faces lefty Tommy Milone (9-7, 3.51) and the series concludes Wednesday night with Alex Cobb (4-8. 4.93) going against righthander Jarrod Parker (7-4, 3.38).
And let’s not forget Tampa Bay’s relievers. Since the All-Star Break, they have ranked as the AL’s best unit with 29.2 innings, one run and 44 strikeouts. And in 51 total innings since the break, their ERA stands at a league-low 1.59.
If the Rays take just one of three in Oakland, they’ll still finish with a 5-4 showing on the road trip – not bad, considering the level of competition against the O’s, Angels and A’s. Anything more would have to be considered a whopping success.
For now, they can thank two young pitchers and an ace bullpen for giving them a chance to pull it off.