ST. PETERSBURG — For three insufferable days filled with untouchable knuckleballs and uncanny two-out hitting, the Rays really did face a team that was out of their league.
The Mets pounded them in triplicate.
Rays right-hander Jeremy Hellickson struggled for the second start in a row as the Mets crammed three weeks of timely hits into as many days and rolled to a 9-6 triumph Thursday afternoon before 21,947 at Tropicana Field.
"They played textbook baseball for three days," Rays manager Joe Maddon said.
The game ended with a bases-loaded called third strike on Ben Zobrist, caught watching a split-finger fastball by closer Frank Francisco. Tampa Bay (35-28), which entered this series on a four-game win streak, dropped all three games to the Mets by a combined score of 29-9.
Sixteen of New York's runs in the series occurred with two out.
"I think we caught this team on fire," said Zobrist, who managed two doubles Thursday while battling the flu. "They hit the ball unbelievable with two outs throughout this series, it was ridiculous. I'm betting that they haven't hit the ball like that all year, until coming in here."
Indeed, the Mets, hitting .254 as a team entering the Trop, hit .345 for the series. In the wake of a weekend sweep by the Yankees, they scored nine or more runs in three consecutive games for the first time in six years.
On Thursday, Mets leadoff hitter Kirk Nieuwenhuis had two homers, including a two-out, two-run shot to left off Hellickson in a four-run fourth. The outfielder's homer was set up when shortstop and No. 9 batter Omar Quintanilla slid into first to beat out an infield grounder to second.
Three batters later, Lucas Duda hit a two-run double.
"That's what they've done the whole series though," Maddon said. "It's almost like it's a part of their DNA when you watch these guys."
Six days after walking seven in 4⅓ innings at Miami, Hellickson languished again. Nieuwenhuis took his second pitch of the game over the rightfield wall, and leftfielder Jason Bay added a solo blast to left the next inning.
In 3⅔ innings, Hellickson gave up nine hits, three of them homers, with one walk and no strikeouts. All eight of the runs were earned.
"I think maybe his velocity was off a click," Maddon said.
"I felt all right," added Hellickson, who took an additional bullpen session between starts. "They didn't miss too many mistakes. I left some changeups up, and they just didn't miss bad pitches."
His offense wasn't much sharper. A day after getting one-hit by 37-year-old knuckleballer R.A. Dickey, the Rays managed eight hits but twice left the bases loaded.
The first instance came in the sixth with New York leading 8-4.
After the Rays loaded the bases with no outs off starter Johan Santana, 6-foot-11 reliever Jon Rauch struck out Sean Rodriguez swinging and pinch-hitter Jose Lobaton looking before forcing Elliot Johnson into an inning-ending grounder to third.
"They just beat us up for three days," Maddon said. "That happens; it's happened here before. We've been able to recover from that in the past, and I anticipate we'll be able to do it again."