By Joe Henderson
ST. PETERSBURG — Something contagious is spreading through the Rays clubhouse, but don't fret. They don't want a vaccination to slow down the contagious outbreak of hitting up and down the lineup that has been going on for a while now.
Sunday's 8-3 win over the Orioles at Tropicana Field was a continuation of a trend that has propelled the Rays (78-64) to a season-high 14 games over .500 and kept them on the outskirts of the playoff race.
The also won their 11th straight at the Trop, tying the 2008 AL pennant-winning team for the longest streak in franchise history.
In its past 17 outings, Tampa Bay has averaged nearly seven runs a game, including 11 times with five or more. On Sunday, it reached that figure in the first inning, propelled by rookie Brandon Lowe's three-run homer off Baltimore lefty Josh Rogers.
"Hitting is contagious. Once a couple of guys start swinging and another guy starts swinging, before you know it all nine in the lineup are swinging hot bats," Lowe said. "Nobody is feeling all the pressure to get the job done because they know if they don't get it done, the guy after them will get it done. It makes hitting a lot easier."
The home run, his first in the majors off a left-hander, is the latest example of Lowe's awakened bat. It took him six games to get his first big-league hit after joining the Rays on Aug. 5 amid a bit of anticipation after he hit 22 home runs in combined stops this season at Double-A Montgomery and Triple-A Durham.
It took him almost a month to get his first big-league homer though, and as late as Aug. 21 he was hitting .091. But he has settled down, seems to have adjusted to his new surroundings, and the results are showing. He has four home runs in his past 10 games and is hitting .360 in his past eight.
"I'm not trying to hit the ball a thousand miles an hour, you know," he said. "Just take good swings."
Manager Kevin Cash said a little patience is all that was needed.
"We've learned over the course of time that it does take some time," he said. "Not everybody is going to come up here and just pick up where they were in the minor leagues. More times than not, that's not going to happen. So, good for Brandon to stay poised and not get frustrated.
"He was probably spinning a little bit early, looking up there at the batting average, or lack of hits. … He's in a better spot now, and it shows. His swings, his at-bats are different, the ball is just jumping off his bat."
Rightfielder Carlos Gomez joined in the fun with a solo homer on the first pitch he saw in the sixth. It was his ninth of the season.
"We're hot right now. We're playing really good games. The pitching has been really awesome," he said. "We don't have a lot of strikeouts, we put a lot of balls in play. That's how you win a lot of games.
"We have the opportunity to make the playoffs, and that is the goal right now — go every single day and finish the season strongly. Everybody believes in this clubhouse that we can win the thing."
Not to be forgotten in the crush of runs was the work of Yonny Chirinos. He came on with one out in the first after opener Ryne Stanek walked all three he faced, although Baltimore's Cedric Mullins was thrown out trying to steal second by catcher Jesus Sucre.
Chirinos got out of that mess unscathed and gave the Rays a solid 6⅓ innings to pick up his fourth win.
"A strong performance by Yonny," Cash said.
A strong performance up and down the lineup, actually, at a time when the Rays need to keep it going. They have six more home games this week — three with Cleveland, then three with Oakland — a stretch that could determine if their hope of playing in the postseason is realistic.
All Lowe knows is he hopes this contagious streak continues.
"It's fun to be in this locker room with some of the guys in here," he said. "It's a fun locker room to be in and a dangerous team on the field."