ST. PETERSBURG — Randy Arozarena’s seventh-inning grand slam was the high-profile moment when the Rays blew open a 7-1 victory that completed a three-game sweep against the Orioles on Sunday afternoon before 9,101 fans at Tropicana Field.
But the way the Rays played before and after that slam — shutdown pitching, spectacular defense and opportunistic base-running — was another reminder of why they have built the best record in baseball.
“That’s us,” said Rays manager Kevin Cash, whose team (42-24) reached a season-high 18 games over .500. “Pitching, trying to prevent runs and playing strong defense, that’s what puts us in a position where we have a chance to be special.
“The hitting, we all recognize how challenging it is. It comes and goes at times. Right now, we’re getting a lot of big hits.”
Arozarena’s slam was launched just beyond the right-centerfield railing after Orioles reliever Cesar Valdez had intentionally walked pinch-hitter Austin Meadows to load the bases. It crushed the Orioles.
But inning by inning, the Rays had been gradually tightening the vise.
Four Rays pitchers combined to allow just two singles and four baserunners overall. Bulk left-hander Josh Fleming (6-4) had four hitless innings and allowed just a walk. The Rays bullpen retired the final 19 Oriole batters. Just three balls were hit out of the infield during that stretch.
The Rays’ defense was terrific, registering a half-dozen highlight-reel plays. The most significant occurred in the first inning. After opener Michael Wacha surrendered a leadoff single to DJ Stewart, then hit Trey Mancini on the right elbow, Rays second baseman Mike Brosseau started a momentum-shifting double play. Brosseau ranged far to his left to gloved Anthony Santander’s grounder, then pivoted and threw to shortstop Taylor Walls, whose quick relay throw got Santander by a step at first base.
“Games are not defined by first-inning plays more often than not,” Cash said. “But that was a big, big play.”
It helped prevent the Orioles from scoring and set a tone.
There was third baseman Joey Wendle, sprinting out of a shift to grab a bunt attempt and nab the runner. There was centerfielder Brett Phillips with a great anticipatory jump off the bat, diving and sliding for an inning-ending catch in the sixth. There was Brandon Lowe, back at second after beginning the game in leftfield, ranging to turn a would-be hit into an out.
“Those aren’t easy plays and they made them look easy,” Fleming said. “Our defense is the best in the league. Any time a ball is hit on the ground or in the air, our guys are going to come up with it.
“We’re the best bullpen in the league. We have all the confidence in the world that when we get to the bullpen, they’re going to get it done.”
Fleming was followed by newly acquired Matt Wisler, Andrew Kittredge and Jeffrey Springs, who each tossed 1-2-3 innings.
After Taylor Walls put the Rays ahead 3-1 with a two-run single in the fourth inning, that tightly-contested margin remained until the seventh.
Orioles reliever Travis Lankins, who followed starter Bruce Zimmerman one inning earlier, issued a leadoff walk to Phillips and gave up a single to Manuel Margot, who reached second on Austin Hays’ throwing error in center.
The Orioles turned to Valdez, who struck out Yandy Diaz, then pinch-hitter Meadows was intentionally walked to load the bases.
Up stepped Arozarena.
“In that situation of the game, they walked (Meadows) and they probably wanted a double play,” Arozarena said through team interpreter Manny Navarro. “I want to go in there and try to do something about it. And I did.”
Arozarena relied on his mental checklist of facing Valdez earlier this season in Baltimore.
“Hit it where it’s pitched,” Arozarena said. “Make hard contact. Wherever he throws it, hit it there.”
Arozarena picked on a 78-mph changeup on Valdez’s 1-1 pitch and collected his first career grand slam. After an Orioles appeal, replays showed that the ball just cleared the yellow railing, then bounced back onto the field.
“We wanted to separate the game right there,” Cash said.
“The home run individually was great,” Arozarena said. “But when you think about what this team was doing, every pitcher getting outs, all the baserunners taking that extra base if needed, we all have to contribute in our own individual way in order to help the team win collectively.”
The pitching and defense were grand.
Ultimately, that’s what really slammed the Orioles.