ST. PETERSBURG — At the season’s quarter pole, the Rays have shifted into a higher gear. They are efficient, productive, scorching hot and having lots of fun.
The Rays had a blast — literally — with three home runs in Sunday afternoon’s 7-1 victory against the Mets to complete a three-game sweep before 7,355 fans at Tropicana Field. For the first time this season, the Rays (23-19) are four games above .500.
But this was about more than just power, although the homers from Manuel Margot, Willy Adames and Brandon Lowe were pace setting.
It was about left-hander Josh Fleming (3-3), who made it look like child’s play in five innings of no-sweat, 53-pitch work. He allowed just one hit (an infield single), struck out five, walked none and had just two balls hit out of the infield.
It was about the bullpen, finally back to full strength, which has options and arm angles galore.
It was about the defense, which covered ground, made a half-dozen eye-popping plays and never gave the Mets a chance.
Mostly, it was about confidence. That elusive quality has returned to the Rays’ dugout. The Mets came in as baseball’s hottest team (seven straight victories), but they left with three straight defeats (by a combined 22-8 margin).
“I feel like we’ve got some different attitude right now,” Adames said. “We’re having fun. Something clicked in the dugout and clubhouse. We’re having more fun than we were in the first month or whatever.”
“Sometimes you barrel balls up and you’ve got nothing to show for it,” Rays manager Kevin Cash said. “Sometimes you find holes and all hell breaks loose with runs scoring. I don’t know if we can explain it, but we’ll take it.”
Cash reiterated that he and his staff have believed all along in the offense, which has heated up. Paired with Fleming’s efficiency, who said he felt at his season’s best, it was a lethal combination.
“All the pitches (worked),” said Fleming, who had a career-high 11 swings-and-misses. “The sinker was running. The changeup was really moving. I got a strikeout on a curveball, which I probably haven’t done since high school or college. The cutter was really effective to righties. I broke a couple of bats and got some weak contact with it.
“In a perfect world, this was (the ideal start). I got in a good rhythm really quickly. It keeps their batters uncomfortable and keeps our defense in it behind me. When I’m working that fast, they’re able to make those great plays because of it.”
So why was Fleming lifted after five innings when he had a season-low 53 pitches?
Cash said “wanted to maximize whatever leverage we had” and the Mets lineup “was in a good spot” for right-hander Diego Castillo, who got his first work since coming off the 10-day injured list Friday. Castillo, who gave up the only run in his only inning (two-out, sixth-inning homer by Patrick Mazeika for his first major-league hit), was followed by one-inning stints from Ryan Thompson, Collin McHugh and Cody Reed.
Fleming said he wanted to stay in the game, but did not protest.
“It was tough, but I get it,” Fleming said. “That’s what we do. I’m not going to sit there and try and plead my case. Obviously, I wanted to keep going. Me and Frankie (catcher Francisco Mejia) got in a groove.
“But they’re saving us after a 60-game season (in 2020). We’ve got to protect our arms. If we’re throwing this well and we can move on the bullpen, yeah, it’s all good.”
The Rays hit the three homers off Mets right-hander Marcus Stroman (3-4), who was sharp through three innings. But in the fourth, Manuel Margot lined a sinker into the left-center bleachers for a 2-0 advantage. In the fifth, after Stroman hit Mejia on the right foot, Adames followed with a two-run homer. Brandon Lowe made it 5-0 with a sixth-inning solo shot.
The Rays added two eighth-inning runs on an RBI double by Ji-Man Choi, who was 3-for-4 in his first game this season following knee surgery, and a run-scoring single by Margot.
“It is a good sign,” Cash said. “I feel like we’re pretty balanced. We’ve got guys who can hit the ball out of the ballpark and drive it to the gaps. We’ve got guys who can make contact, put it in play and get on base at a pretty good clip.
“You just want to be that relentless (offense). It felt like that way from our end — pretty relentless.”
It was a blast.
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