ST. PETERSBURG — Leave it to Brett Phillips to make getting hit by a pitch the most entertaining moment of the Rays’ 5-4 win over the Orioles on Saturday.
Nailed in the back by a 95-mph fastball thrown by former teammate and good buddy Jorge Lopez in the fourth inning, the Rays outfielder turned around, yelled “You want to fight with me?” and took a couple steps toward the mound as he headed to first base.
The big smile on Phillips’ face made it clear he was feigning anger, but home plate umpire Nick Mahrley couldn’t tell and quickly tried to corral Phillips so things didn’t escalate before being clued in.
“(Lopez) is one of my favorite teammates (with the Brewers and Royals),” Phillips said. “Obviously, he did not do that on purpose. When I got hit, I was like, you know what, I’m going to have a little fun with this.”
At the moment there was a lot of fun for the Rays, as the ensuing two-run double by a warming Brandon Lowe expanded their lead to 5-0.
But a few minutes later, the tenor changed.
Rich Hill, the crafty veteran starter, had cruised through the first four innings, allowing only a walk and a single with both runners erased on double plays. But he made a mess in the fifth, loading the bases on a leadoff walk, a one-out single and a two-out walk, then allowing a grand slam on a 1-0, 86.6-mph fastball to Orioles catcher Austin Wynns — the No. 9 hitter with the .125 average — ending his day at 4 2/3 innings.
“It just happened, and it happened fast,” Rays manager Kevin Cash said. “The walks I know Rich would like to have back. But he competes so well, and Wynns, give him credit.”
From there, the game was tense until the end, with Rays relievers Ryan Thompson, Collin McHugh (five strikeouts of six batters, and the win), Pete Fairbanks and Diego Castillo allowing just two hits over 4 1/3 innings.
“We had no margin of error,” Cash said. “The bullpen really played a pretty vital role.”
And all ended quite well for the Rays, who won for the 22nd time in their past 27 games, and reclaimed the top spot in the majors with a 41-24 record.
“It’s been a pretty special run,” Cash said. “The guys have found ways to win in different ways. And we’ll take it whatever way. Just keep winning at this clip and we’re going to be in line for some good things. We’ve got a lot of work (to do) and we want to continue playing good baseball. But to date we’ve got to be pleased with where we’re at.”
And how they’ve gotten there of late, getting three runs in the first inning Saturday on a series of infield and opposite field hits. And who’s doing it, as Lowe looks to be getting better after an extended slow start, going 4-for-7 the last two games, and Kevin Kiermaier matching his season high with three hits after two on Friday.
“Brandon and KK, for sure they’re just such big parts to our team and we need them to help us on certain days, and they have,” Cash said.
Phillips has his own way of helping, as he showed Saturday.
“There’s not too many people that are going to smile or laugh getting 95-96 in the back, but Brett Phillips is one of a kind,” Kiermaier said. “Obviously he loves having fun, loves smiling and those two know each other. No bad intentions whatsoever. Philly, he works in mysterious ways.”
Phillips said his reaction was spontaneous.
“I got to first (and Baltimore’s Trey) Mancini was like, ‘I didn’t know what’s going on. Like, Dude, you’re one of the nicer guys and he’s one. That would have been a hugging match out there,’” Phillips relayed. “But it’s all fun. Baseball is fun.”
The Rays are having plenty right now.
• • •
Sign up for the Rays Report weekly newsletter to get fresh perspectives on the Tampa Bay Rays and the rest of the majors from sports columnist John Romano.