ST. PETERSBURG — Johnny Damon might not have been one of the three Rays selected Sunday for the American League All-Star team.
But manager Joe Maddon said you could "absolutely" make a case that the veteran DH is Tampa Bay's team MVP in the season's first half, for what he has done on the field and in the clubhouse.
"Everything he does," Maddon said. "We need that influence."
Damon delivered again Sunday, falling a homer short of the cycle while knocking in four runs in the Rays' 8-3 win over the Cardinals in front of 26,819 at Tropicana Field. It was the most runs Tampa Bay (47-37) has scored at home this season, and it allowed the Rays to hit the road for Minnesota four games back of the Yankees in the American League East.
Damon wasn't alone. Four Rays had multiple hits (including seven doubles) as the team put together double-digit hits in back-to-back home games for the first time this season. But it was their 37-year-old leadoff hitter who, as Maddon said, gave them "wonderful at-bats in crucial moments" and "gives us the best pro RBI at-bat on a consistent basis."
"He's been on fire," Elliot Johnson said.
"It's amazing," catcher John Jaso said. "Watching him on TV growing up, and then playing with him now. And he's still doing it."
The unexpected offensive explosion was a boon to rookie right-hander Jeremy Hellickson (8-7), who snapped a four-game losing streak with a strong 71/3-inning performance. Hellickson, who had been given one run of support in his previous four outings total, settled down after giving up two homers and three runs. Maddon said Hellickson was able to keep his fastball down more often, which made his changeup a better pitch.
"The fact Jeremy righted himself so well was very important," Maddon said.
Said Hellickson: "There are definitely some pitches I'd like to have back, but I kept us in the ball game and am pleased with how I threw."
Damon had a busy day on the basepaths, including a two-out RBI double in the fifth in which he scored due to a throwing error by Cardinals second baseman Skip Schumaker. He took an extra base in the seventh then ripped a bases-loaded triple to center in the eighth.
"Thank goodness I wasn't playing leftfield (Sunday)," Damon said. "Or I would absolutely be dead out there."
Johnson, Jaso and B.J. Upton had two hits apiece, and Kyle Farnsworth made his latest All-Star case by finishing the final 12/3 innings, his second five-plus out save in nine days. And there was Damon, who continued his rapid climb up the all-time hits list (2,661), passing Lave Cross and Harry Heilmann for 69th place. But Damon said Ty Cobb (4,189) and Pete Rose (4,256) don't have to worry.
"I really wish I could keep this streak going," Damon said, smiling. "But Ty Cobb … there's no chance I'm playing 15 more years."
The Rays could only hope.
Joe Smith can be reached at [email protected]