Rays hope good times continue back at home
The Tampa Bay Rays wore white for their themed team flight to Miami. But the biggest theme of the weekend was how they wore out the Marlins, who were left waving a white flag at the front end of the 2012 Citrus Series.
After a dismal start to the road trip in New York, the Rays headed home dressed for success atop the AL East and sporting a four-game winning streak.
Their 4-2 win Sunday in swanky new Marlins Park gave them a three-game sweep by a combined score of 22-7 – not bad considering that the swing began as anything but a walk in the park.
It was almost as if Tampa Bay packed two theme trips into one over the past week. In the first segment, the Rays and their vanishing bats fell helplessly to the Yankees 7-0 on four hits on Tuesday; then lost 4-1 Wednesday after getting shutout on two hits through eight innings prior to a pair of ninth-inning triples by Desmond Jennings and B.J. Upton.
Who knows, maybe that late show of muscle and speed was just what they needed to awaken from their prolonged, sub-.200 doldrums at the plate and usher in a far more entertaining theme for the trip. One night later, manager Joe Maddon sent out a mish-mash lineup of switch-hitters and righties against Yankees southpaw ace CC Sabathia and – with the continued help from a stellar bullpen – watched his team come alive with a clutch 7-3 victory.
Suddenly, the Rays offense went from a proverbial 98-pound beach weakling to a Charles Atlas contingent kicking South Florida sand at the hapless Marlins – handing them losses of 5-1 Friday and 13-4 Saturday prior to Sunday's triumph. Matt Joyce and Elliot Johnson helped do the honors in the latest decision, bashing home runs to account for three of the four runs in Miami's sixth straight loss.
As Citrus Series bragging rights go, Tampa Bay can do all the crowing right now with seven consecutive wins over its intrastate rival. And while the Rays improved to 10 games over .500 – holding first place at 35-25, with a half-game lead on the Yankees – the Marlins fell to 31-29, five games back in the NL East.
The latest win featured a strong showing by James Shields, who didn't allow a run through the first five innings and wound up going 6.1 innings with four hits to improve to 7-4. If there was a pivotal moment for him, it came in the seventh after Logan Morrison and Gabby Sanchez led off with back-to-back doubles to cut the deficit to 4-1. Shields then walked Chris Coghlan and was clearly laboring. But after a nine-pitch battle with Brett Hayes, he got a big strikeout. And heat-throwing lefty Jake McGee came on to retire the next two Marlins and end the threat.
Miami threatened again in the eighth inning, mounting a two-out scoring rally on a pair of singles off reliever Joel Peralta. But Peralta settled down and, on a full count, struck out Gabby Sanchez looking. And Fernando Rodney came on to earn his eighth save in 19 attempts.
Maddon was particularly pleased to see the Rays fight back after the first two difficult losses in New York, “(It was great) to come down here and play against a really good Miami team and have the offense come alive while we got really good pitching. The bullpen's been spectacular again. … Shieldsie was very good. McGee was outstanding once again, and so was Joel and Fernando. It was kind of a team win today.”
For the Marlins, it was just as much a team loss. One statistic told the story: 2-for-11 with runners in scoring position, giving them a putrid 5-for-50 in their six-game home stand (including three losses to the Braves by a combined score of 21-3).
The Rays, meanwhile, left town with a much more impressive statistic: their eighth get-away win at the end of a road trip in nine outings this season. "They like that plane ride home," Maddon said. "They like to be happy. I like when they're happy, so it's all good."
Now the question is whether the good times will continue to roll back at Tropicana Field. The Rays get Monday off, then play host to the New York Mets, fresh off of suffering a three-game sweep at the hands of the Yankees. Then the Marlins visit for a weekend series, hoping to show a little more of a pulse than they did during this past one.
The Mets are a half game ahead of Miami, third in the NL East at 32-29. Long a spring training fixture in St. Petersburg, they're making their first appearance in town in 11 years (for the record, the Rays took two of three). The Mets lead the lifetime series 8-7, but Tampa Bay has won five of the last seven contests.
Alex Cobb (2-2, 4.12 ERA) – all of 13 the last time the New Yorkers visited St. Petersburg – will start Tuesday night against Chris Young (0-0, 3.60) at 7:10. David Price (8-3, 2.40) pitches Wednesday at 7:10 against R.A. Dickey (9-1, 2.44) and Jeremy Hellickson closes out the series Thursday at 1:10 against Johan Santana (3-3, 2.96).
There's no doubt Tampa Bay has been playing better with leftfielder Jennings back in the lineup, having rejoined the team from the DL at the front end of the road trip. But in the past four games, the Rays have gotten strong contributions from multiple fronts. Johnson collected four hits in five at-bats in Saturday night's 13-4 rout, and his two-run blast to right in the fourth proved pivotal. Who'd have guessed Johnson – a .194 hitter last season – would be cruising at a.270 clip (34-for-126) now with four homers?
Catcher Jose Lobaton picked up two hits in the 7-3 win against New York and another pair in the 5-1 victory to open the series against Miami. Though he went hitless Sunday, he made some nice defensive plays, including an athletic move on the game's final play to throw out Jose Reyes on a dribbler with a runner on.
Upton raised his batting average to .282 with a pair of hits Sunday, including a double in the first that helped the Rays take a 1-0 lead they never relinquished. And Joyce remains a consistent threat at .282. He clobbered a shot deep over the centerfield wall in the fourth for his team-leading 11th homer, having come into the game ranked third in the AL with a .409 on-base percentage behind Chicago's Paul Konerko (.440) and Minnesota's Josh Willingham (.410).
The Rays hope to have offensive catalyst and star third baseman Evan Longoria back in a few weeks. While Longoria continues to rehab is partially torn hamstring, the team has managed to stay afloat with a record of 20-17 in his absence – using six different players to fill the void.
They prepare for this week's home stand with the AL East race still a free-for-all.
Baltimore is in third behind Tampa Bay and New York, one game back at 36-24 with Toronto fourth at 31-29 (four games behind) and Boston slipping to 29-31 (six games out).
The Rays have spent 14 of the last 15 days in first, either alone or tied starting May 27 – in spite of their hitting woes (sub-.200 during that span) and often playing uncharacteristically sloppy defense.
But somehow, they've stayed afloat, thanks to the strength of their pitching staff. They lead the AL over the last week with an ERA close to 3.40 and since April 21, they've led the majors with an ERA hovering around 2.90.
Yet here's perhaps the most telling statistic: 5. The Rays are 51-2 in their last 53 games in which they've scored five or more in a game, an amazing streak dating back to last July 28. Judging from the way they've finally started hitting again, that could bode well for them in the coming week.