The 2012 Citrus Series suddenly has a whole different flavor today for the Tampa Bay Rays after the bite they just took out of the Big Apple.
Just imagine the sour taste that would have lingered tonight against the Miami Marlins had the Rays bats not unexpectedly blossomed Thursday night in Yankee Stadium or David Price not plucked his AL-leading eighth victory in such dramatic fashion for a 7-3 Tampa Bay win.
Instead, after spending one day in third place, the Rays squeezed their way back to the top of the ultra-tight AL East alongside Baltimore at 32-25 just in time for their first showdown this season against their intra-state rival. And that bodes considerably better for them following two straight flat offensive outings against the Yankees and a pair of losses by a combined score of 11-1.
The Marlins, on the other hand, just had the pulp knocked out of them. They lost three straight games to NL East foe Atlanta, culminating with Thursday evenings 8-2 collapse at Marlins Park. The team that only recently had been one of baseballs hottest has now lost five of its last 10 games and tumbled to fourth place in the division at 31-26, though only two games behind first-place Washington.
Miamis problems sound uncannily familiar to Rays fans: a lack of offense that produced only three runs in the Atlanta series. Whats worse, they were outscored 21-3 by the Braves and former Marlins manager Fredi Gonzalez.
The question this weekend is whether the Marlins will start hitting again, and whether the Rays will continue what they started Thursday night.
One good bit of news for Tampa Bay in addition to catching Miami at an opportune moment is that it wont have to face star pitcher Josh Johnson, who was the only bright spot in the Braves series, pitching a strong 7.2 innings in a 2-1 loss, one night after the Marlins were pounded 11-0 in the series opener.
The visit to Miami a trip for which the theme-minded Rays donned all white for their flight kicks off 15 straight interleague games. The series with the Marlins has been a tight one to date, with the South Florida club winning 7 series and Tampa Bay 6 with one tie. But the Rays have won three of the last four and lead in head-to-head play overall, 16-8.
The Rays will try to capitalize on their hosts current woes tonight with Jeremy Hellickson (4-2, 2.69) facing Ricky Nolasco (6-3, 4.35) at 7:10, followed Saturday Matt Moore (2-5, 4.45) going against Carlos Zambrano (4-3, 2.81) at 7:15 and Sunday with James Shields (6-4, 4.27) dueling Anibal Sanchez (3-4, 3.19) at 1:10.
An impressive note on Hellickson: The 2011 AL Rookie of the Year will be making his 45th start never having given up more than eight hits in a game. The last pitcher with a longer streak was John Maine, who opened his career with 49 starts with eight hits or less for the Mets and Orioles from 2004-2007.
All three Marlins starters for the series are righties, which means manager Joe Maddon will be loading his lineup back up with lefties such as slumping Luke Scott, who sat the last two games in New York, and Hideki Matsui, who had three warning-track fly outs in Wednesday nights 4-1 loss to righthander Ivan Nova.
Of course, the lineup Maddon went with Thursday hardly looked like one that would that would cause the Yankees and ace CC Sabathia to shake in their cleats. But after two consecutive nights of non-existent offense, Maddon mixed things up in his signature novel fashion and as often happens, it worked.
He opted to lead off with switch-hitter shortstop Elliott Johnson (in a 2-for-13 slide heading into the night), moving fellow switch-hitter Ben Zobrist (whod tumbled below the Mendoza Line to .199 the night before) to the two-hole, and pairing two of his hottest hitters Desmond Jennings (normally lead-off) and B.J. Upton (usually No. 2) to third and cleanup.
Then, at the bottom of the order, Maddon clustered catcher Jose Lobaton, a switch-hitter recently brought back from the disabled list; lefty slugger Matt Joyce, more typically seen as a clean-up hitter; and yet another switch-hitter, Drew Sutton, who had cooled off at the plate after a hot start since his acquisition last month.
But what looked like an unorthodox lineup paid off. The Rays jumped on Sabathia early with a 5-1 lead and finished the night with 10 hits their biggest total after 13 straight games with fewer than 10 hits dating back to an 8-5 win over Toronto May 22.
"The bats turned around tonight," B.J. Upton told reporters after the win. "This game is not easy. We've been struggling at the plate a little bit as a team. It's good to see us come together tonight and put some things together, especially against a guy like Sabathia.
Jennings, who rejoined the Rays from the DL on Tuesday, continued to show how important a presence he is. He contributed a third-inning double (his fourth hit in the series) to set up the Rays third run. Upton led off the second with a double and scored the games first run, and he added a sacrifice fly in the third and single in the eighth, raising his batting average to .280.
Yet perhaps the key contribution came from the bottom of the order, with Lobaton collecting a pair of singles (scoring Upton in the second) and also reaching on a walk; Joyce still looking good against lefties with a single in the fourth that helped spark a two-run rally, and Sutton drilling a clutch double to bring home Lobaton and Joyce in the fourth and a ninth-inning RBI double as well.
Still for all their surprisingly clutch hitting Thursday, the Rays survived the night thanks to a gritty performance by Price with his showing in the fifth one of the most memorable moments this season for Tampa Bay. After loading the bases with one out and holding on to a suddenly tenuous 5-1 lead, Price engaged in an 11-pitch at bat with Alex Rodriguez, second all-time in career grand slams with 22 and owner of a .343 career batting average with the bases loaded.
But while A-Rod kept waiting on a fastball, Price continually attacked with his curveball and finally struck out Rodriguez after a tense series of foul balls. Then he had to face Robinson Cano, and won that battle as well by retiring the dangerous power-hitter on a bouncer to second.
"We got ahead, 1-2, and he was fouling off some pretty good curveballs," Price recounted Rodriguez. "And I called Lobaton out there and told him I want to stick with it. Keep throwing that to him. That's the best my curveball's been all year and I wanted to stick with it. I was able to throw a good one, and he swung over the top of it."
It was a grueling inning for Price, who wound up throwing 38 pitches. With 109 pitches overall, he was done after five innings. But Wade Davis entered in the sixth and responded with his best effort by far since being converted to a reliever this season. He completely overpowered the Yankees, retiring all six batters he faced and putting the Rays on track for their escape from New York.
"David was outstanding, Maddon said in his post-game briefing. (He) only threw five innings, but it was almost like he threw a complete game. That last inning, he had to really fight through some adversity based on some really great at bats by their side. The at-bat by A-Rod, the curveball-curveball-curveball-curveball and strike three was incredible. Just an outstanding performance. He was like dripping wet coming off the mound. He wanted to go back out, but I said, 'Listen man, that's it. You're spent right now, that's great.You did a wonderful job.
And how about Wade Davis? Ive never seen that out of him not even as a starter, that kind of two-inning dominance. It was just incredibly gifted the way he pitched.
Now the Rays pitchers get to try something new: hitting. They havent been world-beaters in interleague play so far, with a .149 batting average (and a lone homer by Esteban Yan in 2000). They were 2-for-21 last year and 11-for-84 (.131) since 2007.
But what matters most is that the team finally started hitting again Thursday night. Now the question is whether they can keep it weekend as another Citrus Series unfolds.