It was a nine-game road trip that could easily have led their season down a path to ruin. Instead, the Tampa Bay Rays return home from a make-or-break journey with their playoff hopes unbroken.
Just like that, the Rays are back on their feet thanks to their arms.
First there was the back-to-back shutout efforts of Matt Moore and Jeremy Hellickson this past weekend in Anaheim, giving the Rays a surprise lift against the top AL Wild Card seed at the time, the Angels.
And then came the truly unexpected: taking two out of three against the Oakland As, the hottest team in baseball that had moved into the lead Wild Card spot. But Tampa Bay muscled the As into submission with wins of 8-0 Tuesday night and 4-1 Wednesday afternoon, powered by sensational back-to-back outings from James Shields and Alex Cobb.
It was hardly the scenario you would have imagined after Oakland spoiled another strong outing Monday night by David Price, finally pulling out a 4-3 victory in 15 innings that left the Rays physically drained and emotionally deflated.
You could easily pictured the As running off with the series after that, especially given Tampa Bays lack of success on the West Coast in general and in Oakland specifically.
But pitching rotation pulled the Rays from the edge of a cliff, sending the team back home with a 6-3 showing, four wins in five games and a 55-50 record believe it or not, the same mark Tampa Bay sported after 105 games in 2011.
The Rays won each of the three series on the trip, only the fourth time in franchise history theyve achieved that feat. More impressively, it was the first time ever that theyve done that against teams with winning records.
To win each series is about as good as it gets right now, manager Joe Maddon told the media.
The roll began last weekend in Baltimores Camden Yards against the AL Easts second-place club, with victories of 3-1 and 10-1 before a 6-2 loss last Sunday. And as a fitting bookend, the Rays begin a six-game home stand Friday night against the Orioles, each holding a share of second place in the division and just 1.5 games behind Oakland for the second Wild Card berth.
Along the way, the trade deadline came and went with no big, 11th-hour deal made by the Rays. Shields, the subject of most of the speculation, seemed elated to still be wearing a Tampa Bay uniform on the night of his start. And his performance seemed to drive that point home. In a season marred by inconsistency, Shields coming off that shaky four-run loss in Baltimore turned in his best effort of the season just when the Rays desperately needed a lift.
The man who notched 11 complete games last season crafted his first of 2012, masterfully working the fastball-change-up combination that made him so effective a year ago. Hopefully, hell stick with that approach the rest of the way. His three-hit, 11-strikeout showing silenced Oakland, winners of 19 of their previous 24 games. Meanwhile, the offense also awoke from its doldrums with an 11-hit night, including three from Sam Fuld, raising his batting average to .391 (9-for-23) since coming off the disabled list at the start of the road trip.
Wednesday, Carlos Pena continued to show improved signs of life at the plate, notching his second two-hit game in three days with a double and homer in support of Cobbs seven-inning, four-hit game and second straight strong start.
"That was more what he looked like in July last year when he came up and helped us out," Maddon said. "Better command of his fastball, threw some really good curveballs. Changeup had more depth.
But the real depth was that of the entire staff. Just how good was Tampa Bays pitching on the excursion? Consider this: The staff ERA over the nine games was a combined 1.70 2.04 by the starters and 0.78 by the relievers. They held opposing hitters to a batting average of just .178, struck out 97 (with six games featuring 10 or more Ks) and walked only 20. And in the six victories, only three runs were scored against them.
Heading into Wednesdays game, Rays pitchers had already made a statement. Since the All-Star Break, they led the majors in team ERA at 2.53, strikeouts (190) and lowest opponents batting average (.202). Counting Wednesday, Rays relievers have only allowed two runs in their last 39.1 innings of work, with 55 strikeouts.
Closer Fernando Rodney, who picked up his 31st save in 32 attempts, deserves special mention. Since the save has been kept as an official statistic, dating back to 1969, no major league pitcher has ever finished the month of July with his combination of saves (30) and ERA (0.76).
All of that certainly bodes well for the homestand that features three games against the Orioles and three against Toronto (last in the AL East at 51-53). The Rays also return home with the best inter-division record among other AL East foes at 23-18. Fridays contest features Moore (7-4, 4.01) against Baltimores Tommy Hunter (4-6, 5.72), with Hellickson (6-2, 3.23) facing Wei-Yin Chen (9-6, 3.65) Saturday night and Price going against Miguel Gonzalez (3-2, 4.46) Sunday.
Who knows whether the on-again, off-again Rays offense will get the job done. Whats more, the latest news on injured slugger Evan Longoria is that his return as DH has been delayed, due to soreness in his bum hamstring.
The good news is that the pitchers seemed to issue a call to arms over the last nine days and have delivered the Rays right back into the hunt.