ST. PETERSBURG — When Yunel Escobar first saw the Rays' rowdy, post-win clubhouse celebration a few weeks ago, the surprised shortstop stayed back and filmed it on his phone.
But on Sunday afternoon, after Escobar emerged from his early season struggles to rack up three hits in Tampa Bay's 8-1 sweep-clinching victory over Oakland, he soaked in his major role in the party, pulling the cord to light the Captain Morgan lamp.
Escobar, who had just seven hits while playing every inning of the first 17 games, came a triple short of his first cycle, picking up his first homer as a Ray and a lot of confidence.
"Since spring training, I've been working hard," Escobar said through his translator, reliever Joel Peralta. "And the results are coming out right now."
The same could be said for the Rays (8-10), who preached patience after their rough 2-7 road trip and are now clicking after three straight wins over the A's (12-7), who began the weekend with the American League's best record. Ben Zobrist said it's a "very encouraging" feeling heading into a three-game series with the Yankees at Tropicana Field.
"(The A's) came in here very hot, and we came back home kind of licking our wounds," manager Joe Maddon said. "I never really doubted we would come back like we did, but to beat this team pretty well, we played more of a complete game. It's more like we're accustomed to watching ourselves play baseball."
Tampa Bay's scuffling offense matched a season high with eight runs in two of its last three games. The pitchers held the A's — the highest-scoring team in the league — to just four combined runs.
"I'd be stupid to sit here and blame it all on the offense and not give their pitching staff credit," A's first baseman Brandon Moss said. "They did an outstanding job of keeping us off balance all series."
Right-hander Roberto Hernandez did his part in front of 25,954 at the Trop, scattering three hits and three walks over six innings of one-run ball to pick up his first win as a Ray, and first since Sept. 20, 2011. "Oh wow, long time," Hernandez said, smiling. "It felt good."
The Rays' resurgent offense, which Zobrist says is due to having "much better at-bats," delivered a team effort, with five players picking up an RBI, including Ryan Roberts, Sean Rodriguez and Kelly Johnson. Evan Longoria reached base for the 18th straight game.
But the most encouraging sign was Escobar coming out of his slump.
The 30-year-old from Cuba, acquired from the Marlins in the offseason to be the Rays' everyday shortstop, is still hitting just .159 but is 6-for-18 (.333) since getting moved down to the ninth spot five games ago. Maddon said he has appreciated the enthusiasm and effort Escobar has shown despite going through a "difficult moment," which he hasn't let impact his defense.
Escobar said what kept him working through the "rough time" was to find a way to help the Rays win, as he has never felt this happy with a team and hopes to stay here "the rest of my career."
"As this young man gains confidence," Maddon said, "you're going to see him hit the ball extremely well over the next couple weeks."
Like Escobar did Sunday.
Joe Smith can be reached at [email protected]