BALTIMORE — Even with a couple of good games in the past week, Matt Joyce had been going so bad for so long that he was as surprised as anyone to see his name in the cleanup spot on manager Joe Maddon's Tuesday lineup card.
"Let's just say I thought Joe had a couple of glasses of wine for lunch," Joyce said.
But after the 7-4 victory over the Orioles, Maddon had legit reason to toast Joyce, who further distanced himself from his extended slump by driving in three runs and scoring two.
"It was a really frustrating two months. But you can't just throw away the rest of the season because you had a frustrating month or two. You've got to keep going," Joyce said. "Nobody likes to struggle. It's nice to really contribute and help the team win."
The victory was the Rays' sixth in seven games since a six-game losing streak that seems a long time ago. They improved to 72-52 (with 38 to play), putting 5½ games between them and the third-place Orioles and, thanks to Boston's 3-2 loss at San Francisco, taking the lead over the Red Sox in the American League East by percentage points (.581 to .578).
Joyce had help, of course, with two Alexes pitching in. Cobb gave them six-plus solid innings and Torres got the three biggest outs after coming in with the bases loaded and no outs in the seventh — leaving with the lead. The only downer was that Wesley Wright couldn't finish with a five-run lead and Fernando Rodney had to be used for the fourth time in five days.
Cobb, in his second start since coming off the disabled list, looked to tire in the seventh, with two of his four walks, but felt good about getting closer to his form before being hit in the head by a line drive June 15.
What stood out most was a curveball so good Maddon called it elite: "I don't know who throws a better one than I saw tonight."
Torres, the rookie lefty, had handled bases loaded jams earlier this season in Detroit and New York. He said he took a similarly simple approach Tuesday, with the Rays leading 4-2 in the seventh, in focusing on the hitter, in this case Brian Roberts. "Just try to get a ground ball, limit the damage as much as possible," he said.
He did, and the Rays did, Evan Longoria trading the run for two outs by tagging third and throwing to second. Then Torres came back and froze Nate McLouth looking at a changeup.
"Unbelievable," Cobb said. "You can't thank him enough for what he did tonight."
Joyce hit .170 for a 36-game period that stretched from mid June to early August with no home runs and two RBIs, resulting in him being dropped in, and sometimes from, the lineup.
But Maddon had noted recently that Joyce had reorganized his strike zone and was swinging better, and it has shown, with a .364 average over his past 12 games, a couple of homers over the past week, five RBIs the past two nights. Tuesday, he had two walks, a sac fly and a two-run double off a lefty.
But what was most telling to Maddon, and the reason he moved him up in the lineup, was Joyce's selectivity in which pitches to swing at.
"When he's going well, we know what we're going to get from him, and it starts with the organization of the strike zone," Maddon said. "Everyone saw the hits (but) the reason I put him there was because of the way he was taking pitches."
As the saying goes, whatever works.