ST. PETERSBURG — Rays manager Kevin Cash insisted there was no super secret stat, deep thought or even gut feeling that led him to move Yandy Diaz to the leadoff spot Thursday for the first time in two months.
“Just change it up just a little bit,” Cash said. “There wasn’t a ton of a thought process behind it.”
The Rays needed the change after a long and disappointing road trip, and Diaz provided crucial early momentum, crushing the first pitch over the left-centerfield wall to spark the Rays to a 5-2 win over the Tigers.
Mike Zunino added his 31st homer, Kevin Kiermaier hustled his way to a run and Dietrich Enns led a six-pitcher parade with four solid innings for his second big-league win.
After going 4-5 on a two-country, three-city, nine-game, 10-day road trip that seemed even longer — “It felt like we were gone for about a year,” Diaz quipped via team interpreter Manny Navarro — they kicked off their longest, and last, homestand with a needed win.
“You look at the road trip, didn’t play our best ball,” Zunino said. “But to get back (to) the comforts of home, to know that we’re going to be here for a long stretch is comforting, too. ... And obviously getting off to a win is even better.”
In doing so, the Rays improved their American League-best record to 91-56 and expanded their East division lead to 8½ games. They also reduced their “magic number” for clinching a third straight playoff berth to seven and for the division to eight before a Tropicana Field crowd of 10,206.
There was one concern on the night, as veteran designated hitter Nelson Cruz left a few innings after being hit by a pitch on the right forearm. X-rays were negative, and though he was sore and getting treatment and likely to have Friday off, anyway, Cash said Cruz should be “fully available” if needed.
Diaz had hit leadoff 12 times previously this season, but not since July 17. He didn’t know the plan until he saw the lineup Thursday afternoon but was fine with it, saying he likes hitting leadoff, though he probably hasn’t dropped down a bunt in about eight years.
He said he was thinking about how Brandon Lowe likes to take a healthy cut at the first pitch (including an Aug. 30 homer) but was indecisive as he stepped into the box. “As the pitch was coming, I just decided to swing,” Diaz said. “The mentality just kind of went away, and I just let the body kind of react.”
It was certainly welcomed.
“I think that really set the tone,” Zunino said. “Something that’s not as expected as usual. Obviously, he has the power, but a very patient hitter who really knows the strike zone. To see him come out ultra-aggressive and really smoke a ball to get us going, it was a nice boost after a long road trip.”
After getting a second run in the first, the Rays made it 3-1 in the fifth when Kiermaier scored from second on a ground ball to short. He broke for third on the pitch, then made an aggressive move to dash home on the bounced throw to first. “It’s hustle, but it’s also the awareness, that’s what stands out,” Cash said.
Zunino, who just missed home runs in his first two at-bats, delivered a two-run shot with two out in the sixth, his second in two days and 10th in his last 23 games, with a majors-best at-bats per home run ratio of 9.84.
Enns, the lefty plucked out of an independent league in August 2020, stood out among the pitchers, following opener Louis Head. Enns delivered a third straight solid outing, mixing his fastball and cutter, allowing just a solo homer. He also caught runners off first to end the second and third innings on plays called from the bench by coach Paul Hoover.
“Getting the lead helped,” Cash said. “Pitching was just outstanding for us. And the guys were genuinely excited to get back home. We had a good crowd. Anytime you can set a tone early on, get two runs right out of the gate, is really nice.”
Change did the Rays good.
7 To make American League playoffs
8 To win East Division
Combination of wins by the Rays and losses by the No. 3 team in wild-card field (Yankees) and the second-place team in division (Blue Jays)
Tonight: vs. Tigers
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