ST. PETERSBURG — Sacrifice flies are far from flashy, and they won't make many SportsCenter highlight reels.
But they score runs, and they were the story in the Rays' 6-2 win over the Twins on Sunday in front of 26,507 at Tropicana Field. Tampa Bay set a club record with four sacrifice flies, one shy of the single-game major-league record, in picking up its fourth win in its past five games.
"From the spectators' perspective, it's one of the most boring plays in all of baseball," manager Joe Maddon said. "But from a dugout perspective, it's very exciting. I cannot tell you how exciting it is to see that."
Maddon might have been exaggerating a bit; the Rays dugout wasn't exactly exploding with enthusiasm. But centerfielder B.J. Upton pointed out that since spring training, the No. 1 thing on hitters' lists was doing better at scoring a runner from third with less than two outs. It's something the Rays have struggled with, so a "productive out," as Ben Zobrist calls a sacrifice fly, was much appreciated, considering Tampa Bay had a 2-0 lead in the fourth before getting their first hit off left-hander Francisco Liriano.
"I got to thinking about has there ever been a no-hitter and a loss?" third baseman Evan Longoria said. "Either way, we're going to have to do those kind of plays to win games. We're not a team that really is going to be able to rely on a three-run home run to win a whole lot of games."
That was more than enough support for right-hander Jeff Niemann, who picked up his first win of the season, allowing just two runs and three hits over 5? innings. It came one day after Niemann said he got "chills" watching former Rice University teammate Phil Humber throw a perfect game Saturday for the White Sox.
"For a minute there, I didn't think it was going to be real," Niemann said. "It was fun seeing him go out there and do that. He put some pressure on me to do something myself."
Niemann did his best Humber impression early on, carrying a no-hitter into the fifth until Clete Thomas broke it up with a single with two outs.
"It was weird, just with what Humber did the day before, and us being in college for three years together, pitching behind each other, it just kind of was almost, 'Here it goes again,' " Niemann said. "It was fun."
Some strong bullpen work by Jake McGee, who struck out Justin Morneau with the bases loaded in the fifth, and Fernando Rodney, who has finished all but one of the Rays' wins, made the lead stick.
The Rays (9-7) started with two sacrifice flies in the third inning, when they loaded the bases with no outs before getting RBI flyouts by Desmond Jennings and Zobrist. In the fourth, Longoria doubled off the B-ring catwalk, advanced to third on a Jeff Keppinger flyout and scored on an Upton sacrifice fly to left, his first of two in the game. The Mariners were the last team to have as many sacrifice flies, recording five April 15, 2008, against the Royals.
"A sacrifice fly goes down as an RBI and no plate appearance," said Jennings, who also hit a two-run homer. "So it's a plus on both sides."
Joe Smith can be reached at [email protected]