Rays finish off Royals, set sights on Oakland

Rays finish off Royals, set sights on Oakland

Published Aug. 22, 2012 7:51 p.m. ET

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — It was one of those games that could easily have tipped the other way for the Tampa Bay Rays, making you wonder if the amazing run of late was just a mirage.

After all, they’d already watched their bats go silent the night before in a 10-inning shutout loss to the Kansas City Royals inside equally silent Tropicana Field.

But Wednesday afternoon, the Rays let the good times roll once again.

They shook off the disappointment of their Tuesday night setback, brushed aside any lingering fatigue from their recent 10-day road trip and scored a solid 5-3 decision over the Royals before a crowd of 11,892.

That gave the Rays the series win and their 13th victory in the last 16 games, rekindling the momentum from their impressive 8-2 cross-country swing. More important, it kept them at the top of the wild card ladder with a record of 69-55. And it sets them up in good shape for second half of the six-game home stand, which begins Thursday night at 7:10 against the Oakland A’s.

“I’m really proud of our guys coming off the road trip we just did and then coming back at the time frame and the time changes and all of that stuff,” manager Joe Maddon said. “Day game after a night game and tough loss yesterday. Doing what we did was outstanding, the whole group.”

After falling behind 1-0 in the second inning, the Rays rode another strong outing by revitalized righty James Shields, who improved to 12-7 with a 4.01 ERA by limiting KC to five hits over seven innings. Shields — the subject of heavy trade speculation prior to the July 31 deadline — is now 4-0 in his last five games with a 2.15 ERA with 34 strikeouts in 37 innings.

The big difference compared with his previous seven starts that featured a 6.15 ERA and a .323 opponent’s batting average?

“Throwing the fastball,” said manager Joe Maddon. “I think he pitched pretty much with that (today). … He looked good, and he keeps getting better.”

But Shields also got some timely hitting from the recently red-hot offense that had been shut down Tuesday by Royals starter Luke Hochevar, limited to one hit and no runs over eight innings en route to the 1-0 loss.

On Wednesday, the Rays rallied for two runs in the third to take a lead they wouldn’t relinquish, fueled by singles off Luis Mendoza by B.J. Upton, Matt Joyce and Jeff Keppinger, a hit-by-pitch of Evan Longoria and a sacrifice fly by Ben Zobrist. In the sixth, facing reliever Louis Coleman, they extended the lead to 3-1 on a walk to Carlos Pena and double to the gap in left-center by Ryan Roberts, breaking an 0-for-10 slump and raising his batting average to .288 with five doubles over his past 14 games.

Yet what turned out to be the key runs of the game followed soon after. Longoria, back in the DH spot after returning to third base Tuesday, led off the bottom of the seventh with a sharp single to left. Maddon immediately sent in swift outfielder Sam Fuld to pinch-run, and the move paid immediate dividends.

Zobrist followed by lashing a liner into the right-field corner and Fuld sprinted into third, where base coach Tom Foley held him up. But the relay throw glanced off the glove of shortstop Alcides Escobar and began rolling toward the outfield grass.

Without missing a beat, Fuld took off for home like a shot. The ball arrived in the mitt of catcher Salvador Perez just as Fuld slid head-first into home, sneaking a hand around Perez’ foot that blocked the plate. Umpire Scott Barry gave the safe signal, giving the Rays a 4-1 lead they would eventually need.

“Big play,” said Maddon. “The way it was all handled. He was heads up. They make a good throw to the plate. Their catcher normally blocks the plate really well. I was surprised (Sam) was able to actually get in underneath (with a) head-first kind of slide. Not very intelligent at that moment because he could get hurt, but nevertheless it worked.”

Maddon is a fan of aggressive base-running. But the last thing the Rays want is to lose Fuld to injury after he missed the first four months of play recovering from wrist surgery. He’s provided an offensive and defensive spark since his return, hitting .320 in spot duty.

“It was just an instinctual thing, just seeing (the ball) get away,” he said. “It was a bit of a risk. Looking back on it, it probably wasn’t the smartest play with nobody out. I’m glad it happened, but if I had to do it over again, I probably wouldn’t have taken the chance. But it’s all instincts, there’s no time to think about it. At least when I went, I didn’t hesitate. That’s what really allowed me to be safe.”

The run loomed large after the Royals rallied for two runs in the top of the eighth. A single by Johnny Giavotella and triple by Escobar made it 4-2 and knocked Shields out of the game, and Alex Gordon’s single off reliever Jake McGee cut the deficit to 4-3.

The Rays, however, answered back in the bottom of the eighth when catcher Jose Lobaton led off by ripping a 2-0 pitch off Aaron Crow over the right-center wall for his second career homer, his first at the Trop. Just like that, the Rays had some breathing room again at 5-3. And Lobaton was tasting the fruits of his labor.

Luke Scott, as he had done when Lobaton homered for the first time last month in Baltimore, retrieved a cup of ice cream from the clubhouse. Then, with a napkin draped over his forearm, Scott played the role of waiter and presented the frozen treat to the rookie catcher in style.

“I was excited waiting for the ice cream,” Lobaton said. “I was looking for a fastball and he threw it with the first pitch, but I was kind of late. … I said, ‘Wow, I can’t wait to get the fastball (again).’ I hit the ball pretty well, but in this ballpark, I have to run so that maybe I can get a triple.”

But the ball cleared the fence and Lobaton eased into a home run trot. His only regret: Scott served him Dulce de leche (sweet cream) flavor dessert. “It’s not my favorite,” he said. “The other one in Baltimore was really good — chocolate.”

Still, there was plenty for the Lobaton and the Rays to savor by the end of the afternoon. From a pitching perspective, the series marked another dominant performance by the AL’s leading staff. The Rays allowed only 18 hits in three games (16 of which were singles). In addition, they’ve allowed three runs or fewer in 30 of their last 38 outings in the second half, compiling an ERA of 2.25 in that span.

Shields has been particularly tough, with the Rays winning eight of his past 10 starts, including five straight.

“I felt I did pretty well,” he said. “I was mixing my pitches up pretty well and started throwing my curveball a little bit later in the game today and I used my fastball. Overall, I thought I kept them off balance.”

Fernando Rodney did the same in the ninth, notching his 39th save of the season in 41 attempts. Since saves became an official statistic in 1969, he’s the only pitcher in major league history to post that many saves with an ERA as low as 0.77 on this date in a season. His ERA leads all relievers and he’s now just six shy of the club saves record of 45, set in 2010 by Rafael Soriano.

The Rays will try to keep things rolling Thursday when Alex Cobb (7-8, 4.74) faces 6-6, 230-pound right Tyson Ross, being called up from Triple-A Sacramento. Ross will take the spot left open by veteran Bartolo Colon, who was suspended Wednesday for 50 games after testing positive for testosterone. That’s a blow to the A’s, who are battling for a Wild Card spot at 67-56. Colon is 10-9 and in the past 10 games has gone 4-3 with a 2.37 ERA.

Expect to see Longoria back at third base for the game, after playing the first seven innings there Tuesday night before being rested by Maddon. Left-handed-hitting Scott would then DH against the righthander.

“For the rest of this homestand, I’m looking at (Longoria playing third) being possibly more of an every other day thing,” Maddon said. “And possibly, as we move along, it could turn into something otherwise.”

Longoria, who missed 85 games with a partially torn hamstring, says he pleaded his case unsuccessfully to stay in the game Tuesday. He’s encouraged by how good he feels.

“Whatever they want me to do, I’ll do at this point,” he said. “But at some point in the near future, I want to go out and play third base every day. It’s much easier to get into the rhythm of the game.”

For the Rays, meanwhile, the rhythm of the game couldn’t be going much better.