ST. PETERSBURG — The Rays will face better pitching staffs and will play tighter games this season, but over the past seven games their ability to crush the baseball can’t go unnoticed.
As they continued to build on their best start in the franchise’s 22-year history, the Rays tattooed Orioles pitching Wednesday at Tropicana Field in an 8-1 win in front of an underwhelming announced crowd of 9,028.
The Rays hit three home runs — all off Orioles starter David Hess — and have hit three or more in four of their past seven games.
Those power surges have come against bad teams — Baltimore, Toronto and Chicago — but good teams pound bad teams, and the majors-leading Rays (14-4) have done that in the season’s early going.
“The ebbs and flows of a season, an offense, are going to come and go,” manager Kevin Cash said. “Right now we do have a lot of guys who are feeling really good at the plate, and they’re not only feeling good but they’re producing at the plate, and we’re seeing that. You’ll take it while it lasts because this game’s tough and hitting is as tough as anything in the game. It’s nice when you have a lineup, one to nine, that seems to feel really confident walking up to the plate.”
The victory clinched the Rays’ sixth straight series to start the season, extending a club record.
“It’s the most fun I’ve had playing this game,” said catcher Mike Zunino, who had a season-high three hits. “I know it’s early, but that’s just sort of the energy we have here. We have a youthful group here. We have some guys who I don’t think they know their limits yet. And I think they’re getting there. It’s a lot of fun, just playing good, collective baseball.”
Rookie Brandon Lowe gave Tampa Bay a 3-0 lead five batters into the bottom of the first, crushing a 1-1 changeup from Hess and sending it deep into the rightfield stands. Lowe’s blast was his fourth homer in his past seven games.
Ji-Man Choi and Yandy Diaz hit back-to-back homers to open the third for a 6-0 lead. Diaz added an RBI double in the seventh.
Not only did the Rays hit the ball far, they hit it hard. Nine of their batted balls came off the bat at an exit velocity of 105 mph or higher, and 17 were hit at 100 mph or higher.
“I think today was probably the day where you look at it,” Zunino said. “You know we’ve hit balls hard. I can’t say I’ve seen a game where we’ve put that many together, really with anybody I’ve played with. I think it just goes into our approach. I think guys know what they’re doing. Guys trust themselves, and we’re going through a good stretch right now.”
For those who aren’t adept in analytics such as exit velocity, it would be adequate enough — in layman’s terms — to say the Rays were making hard contact all night.
Lowe’s blast, which went an estimated 409 feet, came off the bat at 108.9 mph. Choi’s, a 426-foot blast, had a 107.3 mph exit velocity, and Diaz’s 399-foot homer came off the bat at 107.9.
In other words, no cheapies.
“Honestly, I don’t want to say it’s expected,” Lowe said. “But just knowing kind of the talent that we have and the hitters that we have up and down the lineup, it honestly doesn’t surprise me that there’s a bunch of hard-hit balls in today’s game, and I think you’re going to see a lot of the same.”
It wasn’t just the home runs. Zunino’s leadoff double in the fourth had an exit velocity of 112.3 mph. Austin Meadows’ leadoff single in the first was the hardest-hit ball of the night at 115.4. Diaz’s RBI double came off the bat 108 mph.
All of that was proof of what makes this offense so dangerous: the ability to do damage throughout the order.
The offensive display overshadowed a fine — and important — pitching performance. Rays pitchers allowed just three hits.
Using the opener strategy, they held the Orioles to three hits. Opener Ryne Stanek worked around a two-out double by striking out the side. In four outings as an opener this season, he has retired 18 of the 20 batters he has faced with 11 strikeouts.
Right-hander Yonny Chirinos followed Stanek as the bulk-innings reliever, retiring 15 of the 17 batters he faced in five innings. He allowed one hit and one walk while striking out five.
Contact Eduardo A. Encina at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @EddieInTheYard