BALTIMORE — When the Rays last saw Boston, they were trudging out of Fenway Park after a sweep by the Red Sox that left them with a 1-8 record that marked a very low point in their young season.
They'll be back at Fenway Friday night, and riding quite a bit higher.
That's because they've been playing better, beating the Orioles 9-5 Thursday to make it nine wins in their past 14 games and six straight, their longest winning streak in Kevin Cash's four seasons and since they won nine in a row in 2014.
And that's because they've not only been pitching better but hitting more.
Thursday marked the fifth straight game in which the Rays scored at least eight runs, something they had never done for more than three straight games. For context, no other team in the majors has scored eight or more in five straight this season, five teams have never done it and 10 others haven't done it in the 2000s.
"A lot of good things happened offensively again for us (Thursday),'' Cash said. "It's pretty exciting to sit back and watch how we're putting runs on the board when we were quiet in the early part of the year.''
So when the Rays (10-13) walk back into Fenway Friday afternoon, they will feel their play is more representative of what kind of team they are.
"I would think so,'' veteran outfielder Denard Span said. "I'd like not to think that we're that bad, the way we started. We lost some tough games, we had an opportunity to be least at 4-4. We gave away three or four games to the Red Sox and the Yankees (who they played the other two) combined, and those are the two teams at the top of the division. So I'm looking forward to the series coming up. I think we're a little but more settled in as a ball club. Obviously, they're the hottest team in baseball. But I think this will be a little bit better test for us.''
Or, as Mallex Smith told the squad after Thursday's game: "We're a better team now.' Plus, he said, "We're meshing together. It feels good.''
What has made for the turnaround?
"Early on we were not getting our pitching we were going to get,'' Cash said. "Guys have kind of hit that reset button. We're getting some better starts. Things are starting to fall in line a little bit more with the bullpen. Offensively, everybody was hitting like .100 then and now I think everybody has kind of risen up. …
"They should be playing with a lot of confidence now. They're doing a lot of things, other than scoring eight runs and pitching well. We're doing a lot of things defensively, little things on the bases that are allowing us to extend some innings and have the opportunity to add some runs.''
Some of those little things, such as heads-up baserunning and playing sharp defense, were factors Thursday. They turned four double plays and took several extra bases, with Joey Wendle and Carlos Gomez leading the hustle.
That's in addition to the offense, as C.J. Cron and Wilson Ramos led the way with two-run homers as they took a 6-0 lead by the third and 8-2 in the fifth, with six players rapping two hits each.
And the pitching, as Chris Archer gave them a solid 51/3 innings while allowing four runs on 11 hits, plus a mad dash to third base to try to stop a steal, and four relievers finished.
"I thought Arch threw the ball really well, much better than this stat line," Cash said. "I was impressed with the fact that he got a 6-0 lead, he threw 80 strikes to 115 pitches, so it was kind of more of a "Here it is, hit it" approach."
Those big leads eventually shrank. In the fifth, when Archer allowed a two-run homer to Adam Jones to make it 8-4 and allowed another hit before ending the inning. And more onerously in the eighth when Sergio Romo allowed a homer, then a single and a hit to bring the tying run to the plate, but got bailed out on another great play by third baseman Daniel Robertson to start a double play that Cron finished with a nice pick at first.
Here are some of the reasons for their turnaround:
Ya gotta believe
Despite the slow start, players and coaches said the team stayed together. Cash gets most of the credit, but also outfielder Carlos Gomez, who spoke up in the clubhouse after one of the tough losses in Boston to preach positivity, and again to the hitters before the Texas series.
"Looking at it now, we're just more confident and playing together,'' starter Blake Snell said. "Then it was just a frustrating time. Everyone was trying obviously to win and doing their best, it just wasn't coming together. Once we got past that., it was good. Everybody believes in each other, and we're just playing with more confidence, honestly.''
The Rays had spent all spring developing an unorthodox pitching plan based on having four starters and four multi-inning relievers. Then when Nathan Eovaldi got hurt just before the opener they got really weird and went with three starters. That caused some stresses and concerns with how some of the long and short relievers were being used. Making it worse, the regular starters weren't sharp, and closer Alex Colome let them down, blowing two of the games in Boston that they Rays otherwise could have won. Colome has since seemingly gotten straightened out, and establishing Yonny Chirinos as the fourth starter has provided a more stable framework to use the other relievers.
The Rays are hitting more and scoring more, and for several potential reasons. One is that the players, even after the loss of Kevin Kiermaier to injury, needed time to get more comfortable in their roles and spots in the order. Another that they needed time to get into the normal batting practice routine to get work done.
Hitting coach Chad Mottola said the combination of spending much of the tail end of spring training playing day and road games, and then taking their first road trip to frigid New York, Boston and Chicago, and playing all day games, had an impact.
"There wasn't as much panic as there should have been, based on Hold on, we haven't got a true days work in between the snow and all mornings, so no one got any type of routine in,'' he said. "We got home and did not do well against the Phillies, but it was nice building that little bit of a routine and it's starting to show now.''
As Cash acknowledged, part of the reason the Rays lost eight of their first nine was that they played seven of them against the Red Sox, who went into play Thursday with an MLB-best 18-5 record. In going 8-5 since, the Rays have played the more pedestrian White Sox, Phillies (who swept them), Rangers, Twins and Orioles.
Marc Topkin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @TBTimes_Rays