ST. PETERSBURG — Like so many other times this week, and this season, the Rays had opportunities early to score Thursday against the Astros and got nothing out of them.
The difference this time was that Yunel Escobar came through with an actual clutch hit in the fourth to drive in a run, and that turned out to be the start of something.
With later back-to-back homers by Kevin Kiermaier and Evan Longoria, and a strong start from Chris Archer, the Rays rolled to a 5-0 victory.
The win was the Rays' fifth in their past eight games, though it still leaves them with a major-league-worst record of 29-45, on pace for 99 losses.
And that led manager Joe Maddon to take the opportunity during his postgame media session to reinforce how much better they need to be, specifically in those potential run-scoring situations.
"It's still a big part of our problem," Maddon said. "We see pitches, we get guys on base, we've got to drive them in more consistently."
Until Escobar's fourth-inning single, the Rays were hitless in their last 16 at-bats with runners in scoring position (including getting nothing after loading the bases in the first inning Wednesday). After going 1-for-10 Thursday, they are hitting just .127 in those key situations since May 31, and just .223 for the season, matching the Astros for the American League's worst.
"We had those opportunities early, first inning again, the opportunity to give yourself some breathing room, put yourself in position to get on top and then add on, and we did not take advantage of it again," Maddon said.
"Overall, just the concept of runners in scoring position, doing a better job, we have to keep building off that and getting better. … That's one thing we have to get better at season in progress to really make some noise."
They built slowly Thursday. James Loney singled to start the fourth, then Brandon Guyer reached when the Astros botched a double-play grounder. An out later, Escobar laced a single through the middle, and they led 1-0 against Houston birthday boy Collin McHugh.
"Huge," Archer said. "It was awesome to see us be on the other end of that. A lot of times teams have been capitalizing on that one mistake that we make, and the one mistake they made we were able to make the most of it."
They made more, as Ryan Hanigan dropped a bunt to score Guyer on the once-common safety-squeeze play they're using again more frequently.
And they added on in the seventh. Kiermaier, who failed twice with runners on earlier, launched a ball over the rightfield fence for a two-run homer. And Longoria, who also left men on twice, clubbed the next pitch into the leftfield seats for a 5-0 advantage.
"It was nice to finally do something," Kiermaier said.
After lasting only three innings and giving up six runs (one earned) in Houston on Saturday, Archer insisted he would start fresh and show better Thursday. Allowing only three hits and two walks while striking out eight over 62/3, showcasing an electric fastball and nasty slider, mission accomplished.
"I think they saw a lot closer to my potential than they saw last time," he said.
That could apply in a lot of ways.