ST. PETERSBURG — After an unimpressive start with runners in scoring position and on the base paths, the Rays finally fixed both in the seventh inning of Sunday’s 4-2 win at Tropicana Field. It wasn’t quite as eventful as the back-to-back walkoff victories, but the triumph still allowed Tampa Bay (40-32) to sweep Pittsburgh for the first time in club history.
“Blowouts are cool,” starter Shane McClanahan said, “but those games right there tell you a lot about a team.”
What Sunday showed, in front of an announced crowd of 13,364, is that these Rays can rally during games by correcting issues with a dash of creativity.
One of the early, ugly moments came in the third inning, after Josh Lowe singled to center. Ji-Man Choi rounded third and was called back on his way toward home. As Choi reversed course, the runner behind him, Harold Ramirez, did not. Ramirez kept coming from second, leading to an inning-ending out.
The play was the continuation of a season-long concern. It was the 34th out made on the bases this season, according to Baseball-Reference. The Rays entered Sunday with four more such outs than any other team in the majors; the Cubs were next with 29.
The Rays ran into another out in the seventh. With Yandy Diaz on third, Randy Arozarena hit a grounder to Pirates third baseman Ke’Bryan Hayes. Diaz kept moving toward home, resulting in another easy out.
Tampa Bay couldn’t come up with the hitting to overcome its issues on the base paths. The Rays started 1-for-12 with runners in scoring position, which explains why they were tied at 1 in the seventh. That’s when things started to turn.
With two outs, Arozarena tried to start a rally by stealing second. It wasn’t, he said later, the greatest jump. The ball got to the base before he did.
“I knew that I’m going to have to change what my hands were doing in order to try to be safe,” Arozarena said via team interpreter Manny Navarro.
As Arozarena dove headfirst, he moved his left arm back toward his leg to avoid the tag. His right hand flew around to the base. It was an athletic, spur-of-the-moment swim move.
“You’ve got to be some kind of athlete to pull that off going full speed into a base headfirst (and) have the wherewithal to make that last-second adjustment,” manager Kevin Cash said.
Arozarena was called out. He and the Rays disagreed.
“All I was thinking was, please be safe,” Choi said via team interpreter Daniel Park.
He was, after the Rays’ challenge was upheld. Instead of an inning-killing out, Tampa Bay had the go-ahead runner in scoring position for Choi.
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Choi doubled to right-centerfield, and Lowe and the scorching-hot Isaac Paredes added RBI singles to help seal the team’s fifth sweep of the season.
The Rays hope Arozarena’s highlight-reel steal jumpstarts more success on the base paths.
“Hopefully it is good for him because we know he can do special things on the bases,” Cash said. “It probably hasn’t come that easy to this point this year, but his speed is part of his game, and we’re going to try to find ways to utilize it.”
If nothing else, the Rays can enjoy Monday’s off day knowing that they have started to turn a corner.
After a 2-8 stretch, the Rays have won four of their last five. All three victories against Pittsburgh required late heroics that show the mettle of a young team in the playoff picture.
“We stayed at it,” Cash said. “I’m glad that the guys stayed positive, and we did find ways to win.”
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