Continuing where they left off at Tropicana Field, the Tampa Bay Rays opened a ten-game, three-city, road trip with a sweep of the Minnesota Twins. The Rays have rattled off six straight wins, won eight of their last ten, and hold a half game lead in the American League Wildcard race.
Some will look at the return of franchise player, Evan Longoria, as the reason for their success; however, it has been a mix of good offense – top to bottom -, excellent pitching, and improved defense that has made the Rays successful over the past two weeks. Toss in a hurting Toronto club, and a subpar Minnesota pitching staff and you have a perfect storm of events that pushed Tampa Bay to the front of the Wildcard chase and in the neighborhood of a divisional battle.
Jeremy Hellickson struggled with command on Friday. The right-hander allowed three runs in five innings; however, was spotted eight runs by Rays’ hitters in the first two innings of the game. The much-maligned offense scored 12 runs on 13 hits including seven extra-base hits. Desmond Jennings led the way with two doubles and Matt Joyce belted a two-run blast in the first inning.
Going for his 15th win of the season, David Price pitched at least seven innings in his 10th straight start. B.J. Upton chipped in two home runs covering over 850 feet of distance while Joyce homered for the second straight game. Pitching with a lead from the start, Price completed seven frames, allowing two runs on seven hits en route to win number 15. He struck out five batters and induced eight groundball outs; two of them double plays involving new, but old, shortstop Ben Zobrist.
After making his first appearance at shortstop since 2009 on Thursday, Zobrist was back at the position on Friday and Saturday as well. Despite not playing there for several seasons, he showed excellent range on balls to his left, and completed three double plays over the weekend. With Sean Rodriguez potentially being demoted to make room for a returning Luke Scott, Zobrist’s ability to play the position could be a big weapon for manager Joe Maddon.
Zobrist returned to a more familiar position – right field – on Sunday. Despite being a regular position for him, he made a two-base error in the field, putting starter James Shields in a tough spot. Shields was not as dominant as he was a few weeks ago in Oakland, but wiggled out of several jams on the afternoon. Although he did not have his best stuff, he still tossed seven strong innings, allowing three runs – two of them earned.
The Rays and Twins could not settle things in nine innings, but Tampa Bay’s offense made quick work of Minnesota’s bullpen in the 10th. The Rays scored four runs in the extra inning including a huge, two-run single by Ryan Roberts. The game changed on a go-ahead, RBI groundout from Jeff Keppinger, and Roberts’ single, but the team racked up eight extra-base hits including a leadoff home run from Desmond Jennings. Jennings and Roberts led the offense with six hits apiece in the series and received support from Zobrist and Keppinger, who each had five hits of their own. Evan Longoria played in all three games of the series, reaching base four times in 13 plate appearances.
The team continues their long road trip, opening a three-game series with the Mariners on Monday night in Seattle. Alex Cobb looks to continue his recent success in game one of the series. He’ll be followed by Matt Moore with Jeremy Hellickson going in the finale.