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Rays bats hitting their stride



By Joe Smith
Times Staff Writer
PITTSBURGH — Throughout the Rays’ remarkable run, many of manager Joe Maddon’s moves have turned to gold.

Whether it was a pinch-hitter or pitching switch, his hunches have produced dividends.
On Friday, it happened again.

Carlos Pena was activated from the disabled list (broken left index finger), but Maddon decided to ease him into the lineup by dropping the left-handed slugger to sixth in the order.

Eric Hinske and Evan Longoria stayed in their four and five spots, and each delivered a three-run homer in the Rays’ 10-5 win over the Pirates in front of 19,970 at PNC Park.

Hinske and Longoria were a combined 6-for-8 with six runs scored and six RBIs, and the Rays (48-31) moved to a franchise-best 17 games over .500, having won four in a row and 10 of 13. In doing so, Tampa Bay stayed just a half game behind the AL East-leading Red Sox, with a three-game series looming Monday.

“When we do what we can do as an offense,” Longoria said, “it’s something pretty special.”
What has been special for the Rays recently is their offensive resurgence. Getting their bats to click had become a concern in recent weeks, but after scoring 27 runs in their three-game sweep of the Marlins, the lineup is starting to hit its stride.

“(We’re) working good at-bats, the past couple days in particular,” Maddon said. “We’re starting to spread it around a little bit. We’ve been just waiting for different guys to just catch on fire.”

One of the Rays’ hottest hitters has been Longoria, whose third homer in as many days gives him a team-high 15 on the season; the rookie leads the Rays in RBIs (46) and doubles (20).

“Sometimes you just find that stride,” Longoria said. “I’ve been feeling really comfortable at the plate, really confident, and (I’m) just trying to ride it out. You never know when it will come and go.”

After weeks of facing a gauntlet of top pitchers, the Rays feasted on Pirates rookie Jimmy Barthmaier, who gave up seven runs in 21/3 innings in his big-league debut. The 24-year-old hadn’t made a start above Double A until last month, and Tampa Bay broke him in with big blasts by Longoria in the first and Hinske in the third. Carl Crawford added a homer of his own in the sixth. The Rays’ first five hitters combined for 13 of their 15 hits.

“If you get a couple of hitters heating up as a group in the middle of the lineup, it helps a lot, and it looks like it’s turning in that direction,” Maddon said.

The large, early lead gave Scott Kazmir (7-3) a boost. The ace didn’t have his best stuff, specifically his slider and changeup, but battled through five innings. Kazmir carried a no-hitter into the fourth when things unraveled a bit. Like Matt Garza’s no-hit bid the day before, Kazmir’s was ended by a solo homer (Freddy Sanchez). Chris Gomez (RBI single) and Jack Wilson (two-run single) knocked in runs. But Kazmir, who had been winless in his last three starts, grinded it out.

“I was having trouble with my offspeed (pitches),” said Kazmir, who threw 103 pitches. “Everything felt good in the early innings, but I couldn’t sit down anybody. I felt like my slider was a little lazy.”

[Last modified: Monday, December 21, 2009 12:36am]


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