Rays return home after mixed-bag road trip

It was a meat-grinder of a road trip: 10 days, three tough opponents and more than a few headaches along the way. But the Tampa Bay Rays saved the best for last, setting themselves up in respectable shape for a six-game home stand starting Friday night against the Minnesota Twins.

Nothing like consecutive victories by scores of 12-2 and 9-4 over the Blue Jays to cure a few ills and salvage a difficult swing north. The twin routs bring the Rays back to town with a 7-6 record and three wins in four games – with centerfielder B.J. Upton expected to rejoin the lineup after a two-week stint on the disabled list with a back injury.

In a twist, it was Tampa Bay’s often-sluggish offense that came up big once again while the team’s vaunted pitching was, for the most, part less than stellar.

After dropping the series opener 7-3, the Rays rebounded with hot bats Wednesday night from Matt Joyce (a homer and two doubles), Ben Zobrist (a two-run blast in the first inning), a solo homer by Sean Rodriguez and Luke Scott’s ninth-inning grand slam.

Thursday night, Evan Longoria busted out of a 3 for 25 slump after a torrid start by collecting three hits, including a two-run homer and RBI double, while Desmond Jennings added his first round-tripper of 2012.

The Rays’ pitching – long regarded as the core of the team’s success – continued to sputter with less than spectacular results. The exception was ace James Shields, whose 8 2/3 scoreless innings in a 1-0 shutout Monday in Boston changed the entire complexion of the trip.

The team ERA for the 10 games was 6.43 (54 earned runs in 84 innings), while the bullpen was especially bad, going 0-2 with a 9.69 ERA (28 ER in 26 IP).

The offense wasn’t much to write home about from Detroit or Boston, with a .199 clip through the first five games (though there was that dramatic four-run comeback in the ninth last week against Tigers Cy Young Award winner Justin Verlander, who had taken a one-hitter in the final frame). In the last five games of the trip, the Rays offense stepped up its game, hitting .282 (49 for 174).

Now if the starting pitching can only start to live up to its billing, the Rays have a chance to build on the momentum established north of the border. Other than Shields, the starters have struggled to go deep in games, placing additional strain on the bullpen, and the middle relief corps has struggled more than expected.

J.P. Howell did come through Thursday night when he entered the game with the Rays holding a 6-3 lead with two outs in the sixth and the bases loaded. He ended the rally by getting slugger Adam Lind on a lineout to first baseman Carlos Pena, then worked a scoreless seventh with two strikeouts. That was a good sign, as was Joel Peralta’s second straight scoreless outing after a shaky start to the season.

As for the starters in Toronto, Niemann (0-2) lasted five innings Tuesday and yielded only three hits, but two of them were homers. On Wednesday, David Price (2-1) got the win, but didn’t have a memorable outing, scattering eight hits over 5 2/3 innings. And Thursday, Jeremy Hellickson (2-0) was solid, but not sensational, going 5 2/3 innings and giving up six hits and three walks.

Now the Rays turn to rookie Matt Moore (0-1, 5.54 ERA) on Friday at 7:10 p.m. against Minnesota’s Liam Hendriks (0-1. 1.50 ERA). Moore suffered his first regular season loss last Sunday in Boston in a 6-4 decision. After such a dominant opening act late last season after his September call-up, he hasn’t yet gotten on track.

He didn’t get the decision in a 5-2 loss last week in Detroit, with a mixed-bag performance (6 2/3 innings, 4 hits, 2 ER, 5 BB, 4 K). And last Sunday in Boston, he went 6 1/3 innings with 8 hits, 6 ER, 4 BB, 5 K and 2 HR in a 6-4 loss.

Offensively, the Rays hope to get some additional pop from the return of Upton, who hasn’t played since colliding with Jennings a month ago in an exhibition game. They’ll also be joined by newcomer Brandon Allen, a power-hitting first baseman who was claimed off waivers from Oakland. The downside to Allen is his propensity to strike out, but the club is intrigued by his added long-ball potential. To make room on the 40-man roster, the Rays placed injured catcher Robinson Chirinos on the 60-day DL. They’re expected to make room for Upton and Allen later today by sending shortstop Reid Brignac, who’s still struggling at the plate (.118), and Stephen Vogt (hitless in 13 at-bats) back to Durham.

All in all, the Rays came through the first segment of the season in decent shape. The three-game sweep of the Yankees to start the year allowed them to weather some bumps on the road and still stay above .500 with a 4-6 showing away from the Trop. It certainly could have been a lot worse, given the way the trip began.

Along the way, they learned some things, both good and bad.

Fernando Rodney looks like a solid closing option while Kyle Farnsworth’s elbow heals, and perhaps even after Farnsworth returns. Even though Rodney had a few hiccups Thursday, he throws strikes with authority and so far boasts a 1-0 record and 1.69 ERA with four saves in four chances.

Matt Joyce seems poised for another good offensive run, batting .289 with three homers, two doubles and a triple. But Joyce’s status as an everyday player – something he’s enjoyed lately – will likely change with the return of Upton. Jennings will shift back to left now. And Joyce, who has been playing well in left (including a great diving catch at the wall Thursday night), will move back to right and into a platoon with Ben Zobrist, when “Zorilla” isn’t platooning at second with Jeff Keppinger.

Carlos Pena continues to surprise with his rejuvenated hitting. After a lackluster spring at the plate, Pena looks like his old self, circa 2007 and 2008. He’s batting .333 with four doubles, three homers and 12 RBI, and is hitting – even bunting – to beat the ever-present shift.

The club’s other offseason power addition, Scott, has been delivering as well, at .313 with three doubles, three homers and 14 RBI.

And Longoria has shown his usual resilience. After starting the season on a 10 for 20 tear, he began a slide offensively and, most unexpectedly, defensively – committing three errors Tuesday night (though the first was a tough chance that could just as easily been ruled a hit). He made his fourth in three games on Thursday. But in the end, what mattered was that Longoria snapped out of his offensive doldrums with his three-hit effort. That raised his average to .327 with five doubles, two homers and 11 RBI – exactly the kind of output he wanted after missing most of the first month of the 2011 season with an oblique injury.

The Rays now begin a stretch in which they play 13 of their next 16 games at the Trop. They’re currently tied with the Yankees for second in the AL East behind Baltimore (8-5), with Toronto (6-6) and Boston (4-8) lagging behind. The Twins, meanwhile, are 4-9 and haven’t won a season series against Tampa Bay since manager Joe Maddon’s first season in 2006. Tampa Bay was 7-3 against Minnesota last year and is 14-7 since May 29, 2009.