On the strength of a team-record four sacrifice fly balls, the Tampa Bay Rays defeated the Minnesota Twins 5-2, taking the rubber match of a three-game set. At the end of the third inning the Rays held a 2-0 lead despite not having a hit in the game. They loaded the bases without putting a ball in play (two walks and a hit) before back-to-back sacrifice flies by Desmond Jennings and Ben Zobrist. After playing hero on Saturday, B.J. Upton drove in two more on Sunday with a pair of sac-flies.
The other Rays’ runs came off the bat of Jennings, who hit a no doubt, two-run home run in the bottom of the fifth inning. Despite what some may classify as a slow start, the 25-year-old has been making solid contact in recent games. “I feel like I’ve taken some good swings and have been hitting the ball hard” Jennings said. “I haven’t been missing people, I feel like I’ve been making contact on people.” The outfielder is once again starting to show some power with two home runs in his last four games. Providing the team with their only other extra-base hit was Evan Longoria, who hit a double off the B-ring of the catwalk.
Getting the win on the afternoon was Jeff Niemann. The right-hander allowed two earned on three hits and two walks in 5.1 innings. He also struck out five batters and generated seven swings and misses.
Although he struggled with his control at times (58% strikes), Niemann held the Twins hitless through 4.2 innings. At this point he had thrown 62 pitches, having gone through Minnesota’s lineup nearly twice. Meanwhile, as mentioned before, the big righty has a tendency to fade quickly.
Over his final 19 pitches, Niemann allowed three hits and hit a batter. Starting with magic pitch number 75, he loaded the bases on back-to-back singles before grazing Josh Willingham on his final pitch of the afternoon. Rays’ skipper Joe Maddon has utilized a quick hook with Niemann, removing him with 87 pitches against Toronto and just 81 on Sunday. Despite the season-low in pinch count, Niemann actually worked deeper into the game (5.1 innings) than either of his previous two starts.
Niemann’s early exit left some work for a well-rested bullpen. With James Shields working into the ninth inning on Saturday and an off-day on Monday, it was all hands on deck for Maddon. Fortunately, he was able to get by with using four relievers to get the final 11 outs.
Immediately following Niemann, left-hander Jake McGee faced Justin Morneau with the bases loaded and one out. McGee threw five fastballs before ending the plate appearance with a slider for the whiff. The slider itself was not well-executed, but the pitch selection was spot on as Morneau appeared to be sitting dead red for a fastball. It marked the second time this week that young lefty used a secondary pitch to generate a swinging strikeout.
Wade Davis came on in relief of McGee and allowed a two-run single to pinch-hitter Ryan Doumit; however, the converted starter continued to look comfortable in his new role. He pitched a perfect seventh inning before turning the ball over to Joel Peralta for the eighth and finisher Fernando Rodney for the ninth. In a non-save situation, Rodney got the final three outs by inducing a groundball out before striking out the last two batters swinging. He missed four bats including three whiffs on his filthy changeup.
The 35-year-old does not have an official title, but he has recorded the last out in eight of the team’s nine wins. Speaking of his new weapon, Maddon said “he’s had great command of all of his pitches. He threw the fastball for a strike and the ‘Bugs Bunny’ change-up for a strike.”He’s nice and calm out there and is a strike thrower.” Fernando Rodney, strike thrower.
After a long road trip and a series victory over the weekend, the squad will take a well-deserved day of rest on Monday before hosting Albert Pujols and the Los Angeles Angels on Tuesday.