ST. PETERSBURG — Kelly Shoppach had been doing it this way since he was about 10, an acknowledgement of the embarrassment of jogging after hitting what he thought was a homer and ending up with a single, but he understood the surprise at Tropicana Field on Saturday afternoon.
First, that he hit two balls over the leftfield fence — a game-breaking grand slam in the fourth, and later a solo shot. Then, how he practically raced around the bases, leading the Rays to a much-needed 7-3 win over the Orioles that kept them within two games of the first-place Yankees in the AL East.
"I knew you guys just hadn't seen a lot," Shoppach said. "It's kinda what I do."
There hadn't been much to see as Shoppach, acquired in large part for his right-handed power, missed much of his first two months with the Rays due to knee surgery and struggled most of the time since. Consider that in his first 38 games, he had one home run and six RBIs, and Saturday, he had two homers and five RBIs.
"It just kind of seemed like he threw everybody on his back today and took us to a victory," said Andy Sonnanstine, who did his part filling in for injured Jeff Niemann, overcoming a ragged start to pitch five innings.
The Rays (70-46) were pleased enough with what Shoppach did Saturday, in front of a near-sellout crowd of 36,189, as they had lost seven of nine. But the potential for residual impact on their recently stagnant — and, manager Joe Maddon admitted, "underachieving" — offense was even more enticing as they went on to a season-high-matching 15 hits.
"We've been kind of pressing as a group, and that just normally happens," Maddon said. "You have guys coming up with people in scoring position consistently, and you know every game's important, and we want to get back into first place. Our guys are of the ilk that they're going to take it upon their shoulders, everybody's going to be accountable for it, so I think the guys have been pushing a little too hard. Grand slam occurs, I think it eased them up a little bit."
Saturday started out looking like another one of those days.
Sonnanstine needed 53 pitches to get through two innings, then allowed a three-run foul pole-clanging homer to Adam Jones in the third. And the offense looked headed for additional futility, with four runners on in the first three innings and none in and a baserunning mistake by B.J. Upton looming large.
But a couple of small hits to open the fourth got them started, Evan Longoria doubling, Willy Aybar (who had three hits after going 3-for-31 in his previous 10 games) singling, Sean Rodriguez doubling in a run and Ben Zobrist walking to load the bases.
First, Shoppach — working overtime with hitting coach Derek Shelton to bolster what had been a .195 average — had to make sure he didn't strike out as a 1-and-2 fastball from Brian Matusz was debatably close to being strike three. Then he crushed the next one, and in just the few seconds it took him to get around the bases, the Rays went ahead 5-3. He did it again leading off the eighth, capping his fifth career multihomer game.
"Very impressive," Maddon said, smiling. "He's much faster there as opposed to going first to third on a base hit."
"Occasionally, I've tried to slow down, I just can't do it," Shoppach said. "It just doesn't fit the way I play."
Marc Topkin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.