ST. PETERSBURG — The ace of the Rays staff had made a really early exit, the visiting Angels had built a four-run lead and Tampa Bay could boast of only one hit as it entered the sixth inning Friday night.
One inning later, utter joy filled Tropicana Field. Rays fans did the wave and LL Cool J’s Mama Said Knock You Out pumped through the speakers. The Rays were on their way to knocking out the Angels.
In a snap, the Rays snapped a three-game losing streak and retook first place in the AL East with a 9-4 victory over Los Angeles before a Pride Night crowd of 21,598.
How did they do it? Rays manager Kevin Cash turned to his bench to get his team out of the pinch. Three pinch hitters and one pinch runner later, the Rays had taken the lead and set the stage for a return-to-first party. Tampa Bay (42-27) now is a half game ahead of New York.
Austin Meadows, who had gone four games and 14 at-bats without a hit, doubled down the right field line to start the rally in the sixth. Yandy Diaz followed with an RBI single.
Then came the parade of pinch hitters. Ji-Man Choi, batting for Willy Adames, singled to send Diaz to third. Brandon Lowe, batting for Daniel Robertson, struckout, but it didn’t matter. After a Joey Wendle fly out, Kevin Kiermaier, batting for catcher Mike Zunino, singled to bring home Diaz.
Catcher Travis d’Arnaud filled in as a pinch runner after Guillermo Heredia got hit by a pitch. Avisail Garcia singled to score Choi and Kiermaier and Tommy Pham followed with an RBI single to score d’Arnaud.
The rally just didn’t change the score and put Tampa Bay up 5-4, it altered the mood from flat to fiesta. The Rays had chased lefthanded starter Andrew Heaney, who went five innings (3 2/3 without giving up a hit) and tapped into a bullpen that came into the game with a 4.46 ERA.
The feast continued in the seventh with the Rays adding four more runs on a two-run homer by Choi, an RBI double by d’Arnaud and an RBI single by Pham.
The celebration all but blighted the team’s feckless beginning and ineffective start by Blake Snell. The Rays escaped with the win, but if they’re going to keep pace with the Yankees, they have to get Snell back on track.
On Friday, Snell appeared far from the form that made him one of the American League’s best pitchers last year. The left hander exited against the Angels after only 79 pitches and 3 1/3 innings. He struggled from the beginning, allowing two runs in the first on a sacrifice fly by first baseman Albert Pujols and an RBI single by leftfielder Cesar Puello.
The Angels added runs in the second and fourth, with the third serving as Snell’s only clean inning. Snell entered the game 2-2 with a 2.88 ERA in his last seven starts since allowing a career-high seven runs on May 1 at Kansas City. In four of those starts, he yielded one run or less. Those are good numbers, but not great. Snell seems to have some uncertainty about how to deploy his arsenal of pitches, particularly the fastball.
“We try to stay away from second-guessing how he goes about using (his fastball)," Cash said before the game. “You never know how a pitcher feels about a certain pitch going into a start. I know that we really value all four of his pitches and however he sees fit.”
Snell will be a focus in four days. For now, the Rays have to hope it’s ended its offensive scuffle that saw it score three runs or less in its last three outings. They’ll look to make it two wins in a row with Charlie Morton (8-0) taking the mound at 1:10 p.m.
Contact Ernest Hooper at email@example.com. Follow @hoop4you.