Insider: Rays Complete Weekend Sweep Of Marlins

Despite injuries to key members of the roster, a streaky offense, and some uncharacteristically sloppy defense, the Tampa Bay Rays own the best record in the American League. Their return to the top was buoyed by a three-game sweep of their interstate rivals the Miami Marlins. Playing in Marlins Park for the first time in franchise history, the Rays played perhaps their most complete series of the season; outscoring Florida’s other team by a combined score of 22-7 over the weekend.

Jeremy Hellickson was picked up by the bullpen in the series’ opener; meanwhile, Matt Moore and James Shields posted back-to-back solid starts to complete the sweep. On Saturday, Moore cruised through five innings before Miami got to him for four runs in the sixth. The good news is the Rays’ offense had already provided him nine runs of support on their way to a season-high 13 runs scored.

Unlike his previous two starts, Moore did not need much more that his fastball against the Marlins. Of his 102 pitches, 78 of them were heaters. The Fish took a hack on 35 fastballs and whiffed 16 times. Seven of Moore’s nine strikeouts were finished with a fastball. Although he threw his changeup just 21 times, the off-speed was an out-pitch once again. The changeup was responsible for seven of Moore’s 18 outs including two strikeouts.

Following an up-and-down start to his rookie season, Moore has struck out 71 batters in 68.1 innings. His 9.31 K/9 is the fourth-highest in the American League among qualified starters. It is the second highest rate among AL left-handers. On the strength of a high-octane fastball, knockout changeup, and a nifty breaking ball, the 23-year-old’s swing-and-miss rate (27%) is tops among all AL starters.

Also ranking in the AL’s top-10 for whiffs is Sunday’s starter James Shields. In his last two starts, the 30-year-old allowed 10 earned runs in 11 innings, but rebounded against the Marlins, allowing just one run over 6.1 innings of work. It was the 14th time in his last 31 starts (45%) that he has allowed one earned run or less.

Shields battled through his six innings, using 102 pitches to retired 19 batters. He left the game with two runners on, but left-hander reliever Jake McGee was able to complete the frame without further damage. Although he struck out just five batters, the right-hander’s changeup was “jesty” – a fictitious word Shields uses as a short form of the word majestic.

Overall, Shields threw 33 changeups on Sunday. The Marlins swung 21 times and came up empty on 10 of those swings. Along with McGee, Joel Peralta and Fernando Rodney each tossed an inning to finish off the sweep.

The starting pitching was good over the weekend, but the much maligned Rays’ offense also came to play. Beginning with their victory against the New York Yankees, the offense has scored 31 runs during this four-game win streak. They scored 27 runs in their previous 10 games.

With the second-highest walk total in the American League, Ben Zobrist has been able to maintain a .352 on-base percentage despite hitting near .200 for most of the season. This weekend, Zobrist went to work on his batting average with seven hits against the Marlins including two home runs on Saturday. He reached base 10 times total in Miami; crossing home plate five times.

Joining in on the fun, Matt Joyce also belted two home runs over the weekend. The 27-year-old leads the team with 11 bombs on the season. Evan Longoria is still Tampa Bay’s biggest offensive weapon; however, with a slash line of .282/.396/.542 through 213 plate appearances this season, Joyce is a bonafide threat of his own. Looking at his peripheral statistics, there appears to be no fluke in his game. Perhaps now would be a good time to think about addressing his long-term future with the club.

Elliot Johnson also had a productive series against the Marlins. On Saturday, the infielder collected a career-high four hits. On Sunday, he smashed his fourth home run of the season. These offensive outbursts from Johnson are not likely be sustained over the course of a full season, but with injuries to key players, and slumps from those still able-bodied, any production from his bat is welcomed.

The Rays will enjoy an off-day on Monday before hosting the New York Mets for a three-game set at Tropicana Field. Alex Cobb will go in game one with David Price and Jeremy Hellickson completing the series.