ST. PETERSBURG — Casey Kotchman is a child of the 1980s, but he looked fittingly appropriate in the baggy, cream-colored 1951 Tampa Smokers uniforms the Rays wore Saturday.
Especially so in the fifth inning, when he laced a two-out, three-run double down the first-base line that was the biggest hit of the Rays' relatively explosive night in a 5-1 interleague win over the Cardinals.
"He's an every-era kind of a player," manager Joe Maddon said. "He's not a speedster. He plays great defense. He understands the game well. He's a contact guy, he's not swinging for the fences all the time. He could have played in any decade, I think."
Kotchman had help as the Rays, before a Tropicana Field crowd of 23,897, improved to 46-38 and stayed five games behind the AL East-leading Yankees.
Offense has been the Rays' problem, especially at home, and the five runs and 10 hits looked like a party. They'd had a total of 10 runs and 22 hits in the first four games of the homestand, hadn't had more than eight hits in a home game since May and reached five runs for only the 12th time in 41 home games (a main reason they are 20-21).
Johnny Damon had four of the hits, surpassing Ted Williams on the all-time list along the way, and Justin Ruggiano had a two-run homer, three pitches after Kotchman's double, and made a sliding catch in the leftfield corner.
The pitching was good, too, as Jeff Niemann bounced back from his poor performance in Houston with a solid six-inning outing — "Outstanding," Maddon said — and the Rays ran a five-man bullpen relay for the final nine outs, Juan Cruz getting the biggest and Kyle Farnsworth the last.
The combination was important as the Rays enter a brutal stretch of their schedule, three games at Minnesota then their next 11 — going into and coming out of the break — against the Yankees (eight) and Red Sox.
Quality performances by Nos. 4-5 starters Wade Davis and Niemann, continued strong work from the bullpen and an improved offense are the top items on their checklist. "It's not brain surgery," Maddon said, "but that's what we've got to do to really continue to contend and get on top."
The Rays were down 1-0, on Lance Berkman's 21st homer, when they finally stirred in the sixth off Kyle McClellan. Damon singled and Ben Zobrist walked, and after Evan Longoria flied out and Matt Joyce's fielder's choice grounder forced Zobrist, B.J. Upton took a four-pitch walk to load the bases with two outs.
Kotchman, now hitting .336, took two balls then laced the next pitch down the first-base line, their first hit of the season that cleared the bases as they came in with an AL-worst .196 average (9-for-46) with the bases loaded.
"I'm just glad it was fair and it got through," Kotchman said.
After starting the season in the minors, the 28-year-old St. Petersburg native has turned out to be a key contributor with a .336 average and flawless defense at first, enough so that Damon said, "We feel like he's deserving of going to the All-Star Game."
Kotchman, forced to sign a minor-league deal after a poor 2010 season in Seattle, is just happy to be playing, and even more so that it's at home.
He wasn't so sure, though, about the 1950s look, which included high black-and-red socks: "I don't know, I felt awkward with the pants up. I don't think I have the body to pull that off."
Marc Topkin can be reached at top[email protected]