Let’s face it, the Rays still have some issues.
Their hitters strike out too much and their pitching staff seems to be held together with Band-Aids. The bullpen has blown some leads, and the roster and lineup change — literally — from day to day.
But danged if this isn’t one of the more entertaining teams in the American League. And, after an 8-3 victory and a four-game sweep of the Angels on Thursday night, the Rays’ record says they are one of the better teams in the league, too.
Since finding themselves in last place in the AL East on Sunday morning, the Rays have ripped off five consecutive victories and are now in second place, 1.5 games behind the Red Sox.
Are they conventional? Not entirely. But are they effective? They certainly were Thursday night.
“The last two nights really show that,” manager Kevin Cash said. “We’re playing really good baseball behind our pitchers defensively, we’re doing everything we can to make wise decisions on the bases. Just kind of buying time, keeping it close and then when that big hit comes with guys on base, we put ourselves in a situation to tie it, to take the lead, and ultimately find a way to win.”
While the Rays may lack the star quality of Anaheim’s lineup with Mike Trout and Shohei Ohtani, they’re a more disciplined and energetic group. They stole four bases Thursday, giving them eight in the past three games, and Anaheim responded with throwing errors and wild pitches.
“Putting pressure on the defense definitely helps us out,” rightfielder Manuel Margot said through interpreter Manny Navarro.
Trailing 3-0 going into the seventh, the Rays finally shook out of their offensive slumber with a Mike Zunino two-out homer to leftfield. That was just a prelude to a wild eighth inning that saw 12 batters come to the plate, a double steal, a wild pitch, two walks, seven hits and seven runs.
The biggest moment was after Randy Arozarena and Margot had back-to-back RBI hits to the opposite field to tie the score. With Austin Meadows on first and Margot on second, the Rays attempted a double steal. Angels reliever Aaron Slegers threw a wild pitch and Margot came all the way around to score the go-ahead run.
“I kept my head up and saw it was a wild pitch, made my move and scored,” Margot said.
From there, the Angels fell apart. Yandy Diaz singled over a drawn-in infield to drive in Meadows, Zunino got an RBI single and Brett Phillips — who was making a rare start in place of Kevin Kiermaier in centerfield and started the rally with a single to open the eighth — doubled in the final two runs.
All of this came after Angels starter Andrew Heaney handcuffed the Rays with 10 strikeouts and no runs through the first six innings. But while the Rays were unable to get a run home against Heaney, they did work enough at-bats to drive his pitch count up. When he reached 110 pitches with two out in the seventh, Angels manager Joe Maddon went to his bullpen.
Five pitches later, Zunino hit a 412-foot homer to leftfield.
“As a whole, that’s what were trying to do, have productive at-bats, get deep into at-bats, especially when a guy is as locked in as (Heaney) was,” Zunino said. “There’s plenty of guys in the East that we have to face that we know we either have to get to them early or wait them out. We’re pretty familiar with that. We were aware early today that he was on and we just had to grind out at-bats.”
Tampa Bay’s pitching staff had to do some grinding of its own. For the second outing in a row, left-hander Josh Fleming struggled out of the gate. Working as a starter against the Astros on May 1, he gave up three runs on three hits and two walks in the first inning.
This time, Fleming followed Collin McHugh as the bulk guy out of the bullpen in the third inning, but the results were the same. He surrendered four consecutive hits, including a two-run homer by Ohtani as Anaheim went up 3-0.
But, to his credit, the Rays rookie has kept his composure. Just like the Astros game when he settled down to throw five shutout innings, Fleming gutted it out against the Angels with four innings of two-hit shutout ball. With the victory, Fleming is now 7-3 in his young career.
“That says a lot,” Cash said of Fleming’s tenacity. “Throughout our player development — our pitching coordinators, our field coordinators and all of his managers have said — the guy is just one heck of a competitor. Certainly you’re allowed to get frustrated when you give up runs but he’s able to flip the page and get back to work.”
John Romano can be reached at email@example.com. Follow @romano_tbtimes.
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