Originally posted on Fox Sports Florida  |  Last updated 6/3/12
ST. PETERSBURG Considering how cold their bats have been at home lately, it looked for a while Sunday as if the only thing the Tampa Bay Rays would be hitting was the road. And judging by the way things were going, they might have swung and missed. But the offense came alive just enough for the Rays to head north now with a hotter hand, holding onto first place in the AL East once again and poised an important three-game series against the third-place but surging New York Yankees starting Tuesday night. The Rays' 8-4 victory over the Baltimore Orioles Sunday at the Trop was exactly what they needed before their important showdown in the Bronx. They not only took the three-game set from Baltimore with the division lead on the line, but moved back into sole possession of the top spot by a game over the spiraling O's at 31-23. And they've re-generated some momentum at just the right time, after being swept by the Chicago White Sox at the front end of the six-game home stand. It didn't look so good at first, especially on the heels of Tampa Bay's 2-1 loss Saturday night in which the team managed only two hits for the first time since last July against Seattle. The Rays trailed 1-0 after three innings on a Matt Wieters home run off rookie lefthander Matt Moore, while recently horrid Baltimore starter Jake Arrieta mowed down the first nine batters he faced. But centerfielder B.J. Upton snapped the offense out of its doldrums with his team's first two hits of the day, a rally-sparking single in the fourth and 2 RBI double in the fifth to put the Rays on top to stay. And Moore toughed it out through six innings, yielding six hits and three walks but picking up his second win of the season against five losses. Tampa Bay wound up with only six hits on the day, but what mattered was the win and perhaps the prospect of a little more pop with the expected return from the disabled list Tuesday of leadoff batter and leftfielder Desmond Jennings. The Rays hit only .165 over the recent 2-4 home stretch, averaging 3.3 runs per game. And in their four losses, they totaled only seven runs. So an getting eight runs Sunday albeit with the help of Baltimore's AL-worst defense was a breakthrough. But while the offense has been floundering, the pitching has been strong. Heading into Sunday, the Rays had a 2.51 ERA in their previous 13 games (while the offense was hitting .201). And during this past home stand, they posted a 2.67 ERA with 55 strikeouts in 54 innings and only 12 walks. "Our pitching has permitted us to not to hit and still be heads above water," said manager Joe Maddon. "I can't even say our defense has it's been sporadic with the errors. We've made some great plays. We've stolen some runs. But the routine play that we normally make consistently we have not." For the record, the Orioles and Rays currently lead the AL in errors, with 51 and 46 respectively, a strange place for Tampa Bay considering that it normally boasts one of baseball's best defenses. Baltimore solidified its dubious first-place distinction Sunday by committing three errors for the sixth time this season, a real feat considering that non other AL team has done that more than once. The first was committed in the fourth by centerfielder Adam Jones, who hauled in sacrifice fly by Matt Joyce and then heaved a throw over third baseman Steve Tolleson, allowing Upton to score and make it 2-1. In the sixth, Wieters errant pickoff throw to third hit a diving Ben Zobrist in the helmet and deflected into foul territory, allowing Zobrist to score and make it 5-2. And later in the inning, catcher Jose Molina reached on a Tolleson throwing error that allowed Sean Rodriguez to come home for a 7-2 lead and set up a Carlos Pena sacrifice fly for an 8-2 edge. So it went for the Birds, who have now lost seven of their last eight games, nine of their last 13 and six of their last seven on the road. During their last eight games, in fact, they've scored only 20 runs (2.5 runs per game). After such a torrid start, leading the division for much of the season, Baltimore (30-24) has now has four consecutive series after going 7-1-1 their previous nine. The Rays, on the hand, are 4-2-1 in their last seven series in spite of all their injuries and recent troubles. But they face a challenging stretch now in a division that could hardly be much tighter. Their 31-23 puts them only 1.5 games over the Yankees (29-24), who have won seven of their last 10 games and three over Toronto and Boston (each 28-26). That raises the stakes in the Big Apple, where James Shields (6-3, 3.95) will square off against lefthander Andy Pettitte (2-2, 3.49) Tuesday, followed by Alex Cobb (2-1, 3.71) against Ivan Nova (6-2, 5.60) Wednesday and David Price (7-3, 2.44) against southpaw CC Sabathia (7-2, 3.66) on Thursday. From New York, the Rays will fly straight to Miami for a three-game series against the Marlins, winners of seven of their last 10 and currently second in the equally tight NL East with the same record as Tampa Bay, 31-23. In light of the week ahead, the Rays' success this weekend was significant in setting a positive tone for the road trip. But Maddon downplayed the significance of regaining first place with the solid win Sunday. "I hate to be really redundant and boring and all that kind of stuff, but I don't really apply any more weight to any game we play," he said. "Every game is meaningful. If you win more a bunch of games now regardless of who you're playing at the end of the year you have more wins than the second place team, I'm good with that." He was, however, pleased a number of aspects of the victory including a hard slide by Johnson into second in the fifth inning, breaking up a double-play and keeping the inning alive for a two-run, two-out double by Upton to make it 4-2. "The part of that game that goes really unrecognized is Elliot's slide into second base that extends the inning and permits us to score all those runs," Maddon said. "That's a big play in today's game. Matt really held it together well, had good stuff. But they were having good at-bats. I'll give the Orioles a lot of credit. They were good at-bats against him that entire game. I was really pleased with the way we worked through those moments with Matty." Maddon also lauded reliever Jake McGee for a scoreless, one-hit inning of relief in the seventh. McGee has now made 11 straight scoreless appearances dating to May 11. His ERA stands at 1.47 but is 0.69 since the start of May and he hadn't allowed a hit in his previous 15 batters until J.J. Hardy tagged him for a single on Sunday. Another potentially good sign: Zobrist, in the midst of a prolonged slump at .208, slammed a double off the left field wall in the sixth ending a 59 at-bat drought without an extra base hit, the longest stretch of his career. On the flip side, DH Luke Scott is in the midst of a 6-for-36 (.167) slide in his last 10 days. "(Zobrist) hit that ball really well we need to get him going again, we've got to get Luke," Maddon said. "The other thing to consider is that (Hideki) Matsui has hit the ball really well. His at bats for the most part have been really solid." Matsui ripped a long drive into the left-center gap that was chased down by left fielder Endy Chavez in the second. And he rapped a solid single in the sixth to contribute to a four-run outburst. It was his first non-homer hit for the Rays, after a pair of blasts in his first week with the team. He's 3-for-16 (.188) with four RBI, and is set to face his former Yankees, with whom he starred for seven seasons and was 2009 World Series MVP. "It's always going to be a special place for me," Matsui said through interpreter Roger Kahlon. "But I'm just going to go out there and try to help the team win." With the anticipated return of Jennings from a sprained knee on Tuesday, that could mean a different kind of role for Matsui, who started in left several times this past week. He might be used more off the bench or perhaps as a DH. "For me, it's not really an issue at all," he said. "When I'm told to go out there and play, I'll play. Until then, I'm just making sure I'm ready to go." Maddon explained that he's been trying to keep Matsui's legs fresh by taking him out of games early when the Rays have a lead, as he did on Sunday, pinch-running Rich Thompson for him in the sixth. How will he be used when Jennings returns? "I'm debating that mentally, I don't know," he said. "If he could play third base, that'd be great. We'll see. Again, (it will take) having to be creative because he is swinging the bat pretty good right now and he's had a history of hitting lefties. So we'll look and see how we're going to do that." For now, Maddon is just happy to start getting healthy again (Star third baseman Evan Longoria, healing from a partial hamstring tear, could start a rehab assignment in mid-month). "We're going to start getting well in the relatively near future, and that's going to be great," he said. "In the meantime, we've been able to hold serve and we're still on top. The guys who've been out there have been doing a great job. And the effort's been fantastic." But with the Yankees and Marlins up next, they need the bats to get going, too.
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