ST. PETERSBURG — A bizarre season of unprecedented pitching schemes, unenviable scheduling and several unrecognizable names has yielded an unthinkable result.
The Rays will enter the all-star break no worse than .500.
"We're just getting started," center fielder Kevin Kiermaier said.
Extending their most successful stretch in three years, the Rays (48-44) got a two-out, three-run home run from first baseman C.J. Cron in the seventh inning to rally for a 4-2 triumph Wednesday afternoon against Detroit before a Tropicana Field audience of 13,922.
The victory gave Tampa Bay, winner of five in a row, a sweep for the fourth time in its last five home series. The Rays are 14-1 at home since June 11, matching the best 15-game stretch in club history.
They begin a four-game series at Minnesota starting Thursday night, then adjourn for the break.
They'll emerge from it in better position than most would've envisioned a few months back, when it began unloading some of its most prominent names and sprung the bullpen-days concept on its fan base.
"We're getting a lot of buy-in from guys right now," Manager Kevin Cash said.
"We're asking starters to come out of the bullpen, we're asking relievers to…open games for us. They all want roles, and I want 'em to have roles, but they're also buying in."
On Wednesday, they got another of those serviceable bullpen days from five pitchers (who combined to allow seven hits), as well as a sparkling afternoon from Kiermaier (3-for-5), who gave Tampa Bay a 1-0 lead with a leadoff homer in the third.
The only glitch: Tigers catcher James McCann's two-run blast in the fourth off Matt Andriese, who relieved "opener" Hunter Wood after one inning and struck out five in a row at one point.
The Rays' offense sputtered from there, but relievers Ryan Yarbrough, Diego Castillo and Sergio Romo combined to allow two hits over the last five innings.
"Our pitching was outstanding," Cash said.
Cron's blast off Tigers right-handed starter Jordan Zimmerman — after singles by Kiermaier and Matt Duffy — ended an 0-for-8 Rays drought with runners in scoring position and gave the Rays a 4-2 lead.
"I think he threw me a little cutter-slider, not really where he wanted to throw it," Cron said. "Just thankfully I got a good swing on it."
Mallex Smith preserved the lead — almost single-handedly — in the top of the eighth.
Switching from right field to left to open the inning, Smith played a Nicholas Castellanos leadoff double off the wall effectively enough to almost throw Castellanos out at second.
Then with two out, after Castellanos had reached third on a throwing error by new right fielder Carlos Gomez, Smith made a diving snag of a sharp Victor Martinez shot to end the inning.
"Huge," Cash said. "Off Victor's bat, that's a for-sure base hit, and Mallex just covers ground like very few people can."
Romo finished things off with a perfect ninth to send the Rays northward.
And definitely upward.
"I just keep saying it every day, every time you guys ask me questions — it's just a fun group to be a part of," Kiermaier said.
"We all get along with each other, we all vibe very well, and it's a lot of fun coming to the field each and every day."
Contact Joey Knight at [email protected] Follow @TBTimes_Bulls.