ST. PETERSBURG — Manager Joe Maddon is planning extra fundamental work sessions during the 10-game homestand that opened Monday to get his Rays focused and mentally sharp. And he took the unusual step of acknowledging a sense of urgency in turning around their disappointing season.
But seeing is believing. And as the Rays rallied Monday to beat the Orioles 5-4, winning for the fourth time in their past five games, though still a majors-worst 28-43 there were some slight signs of hope.
"That's the thing, when you start believing you're going to win games late, that's the good feeling to get," Maddon said. "That's when you start getting good again. And we did. We won a game late (Sunday), we won a game late again (Monday).
"Let's keep the mojo going."
Jerry Sands is doing his part, delivering the decisive run on a pinch-hit for the second straight day. Sunday it was an RBI single, as he broke three bats. Monday, it took just one big swing in the eighth: a two-run pinch-hit homer.
"Obviously it's fun to be the guy that does it for the team," Sands said.
Sands became the first major-leaguer to come through with the winning RBI in a pinch in consecutive games since Howard Battle for Atlanta in 1999, and the first American Leaguer since Harold Baines in 1990.
The Rays needed him to step up after blowing a 3-0 lead, salvaging a solid start by Jake Odorizzi, taking advantage of homers by Yunel Escobar and Ryan Hanigan (his first since April 19) and surviving another bullpen episode.
The 3-0 lead was shaved to 3-2 in the sixth when Odorizzi, who allowed only an infield single over the first five innings, gave up a double then a two-strike homer to Adam Jones on an errant 0-and-2 fastball.
Maddon went to the bullpen, and that worked okay until the eighth. Grant Balfour, who already lost his closer's job, let them down again, allowing two singles, then getting one out on a hard liner.
Maddon saw enough and summoned Jake McGee, who had closed Sunday's game. But McGee walked Chris Davis on five pitches to load the bases for AL home-run leader Nelson Cruz. McGee did well to get him to hit it on the ground, but the high chopper to third handcuffed Evan Longoria, who couldn't make a play anywhere, allowing the tying run to score.
But these Rays weren't done. Longoria drew a leadoff walked from Darren O'Day in the eighth, followed by two quick outs. David DeJesus was to pinch-hit, but when the O's went to lefty Brian Matusz, Maddon switched to Sands, whom he didn't start vs. a lefty in order to have him for a late pinch-hit situation, liking his aggressiveness, fearlessness and power. And Sands delivered, with a soaring blast that tucked just inside the leftfield foul pole.
Citing the benefits of the committee approach in using McGee in the most critical situation, Maddon then closed with Juan Carlos Oviedo, who survived a solo homer.
Maddon has made it clear in words and actions, there is no time to waste: "We need to start pushing it right now.''
Marc Topkin can be reached at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter at @TBTimes_Rays.