ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. The prevailing sentiment in the Tampa Bay Rays clubhouse Thursday afternoon could be summed up in two words: Thank Evan.
The Rays couldnt have been more grateful that team leader Evan Longoria was finally back in the fold after missing 85 games with a torn hamstring.
You could see the difference he made in the upbeat clubhouse, on the loose and lively bench and in a lineup that suddenly packed the kind of punch its been missing.
No, he wasnt single-handedly responsible for the Rays three-game sweep of the Toronto Blue Jays this week, their first since early June against the Marlins. But his mere presence as designated hitter including a three hits Thursday in a 7-1 victory before an energized crowd of 23,462 has his team heading in the right direction as it hits the road for a crucial 10-game road swing.
Longoria, coupled with a fine performance from rookie left-hander Matt Moore, helped the Rays win their sixth game in the last eight and complete their six-game home stand at 4-2, following a pair of disheartening shutout losses to Baltimore.
His 3-for-5 performance, including an RBI double that barely missed being a home run in the eighth, completed a 4-for-12 showing in his first series back. And if theres any question about the impact Longoria has on the Rays, they are now 18-8 with him in the lineup, having gone 41-44 without him.
When he hits the ball, hes hitting the ball hard already, and thats a good thing, manager Joe Maddon said. You can see, when he hits the ball, the velocity off the bat is different. Its good, and that is what becomes contagious. I think the pitchers on the other team see that. When the ball is hit that hard, it does something to the pitcher, it just bothers them a little bit. I think the rest of the group can feed off that.
Indeed, Tampa Bays offense was uncharacteristically active Thursday with 13 hits, one shy of the season-high of 14 at home (the first 12 were singles until Longorias double, which umpires reviewed to make sure it hadnt cleared the left-center wall). And the seven runs came on the heels of the Rays scoring only nine in the first five games of the homestand.
Longoria credited his effort to work over the past few days with Tampa Bay hitting coach Derek Shelton, following a brief rehab stint with Triple-A Durham.
Me and Derek have been working, he said. Its different being down there because you dont get to work with your hitting coach. All you can do is talk on the phone. That doesnt work the same way. The first couple of days I could just tell that my swing was a little bit different from where I was four months ago when I got injured. So it helps to be here and be able to look at a video and just kind of analyze that.
Longorias day began with a first-inning strikeout swinging from the cleanup spot before starting a rally with a single through the hole at short in the third, and driving in B.J. Upton with a single to left in the fourth.
"Even after the strikeout in the first inning, I could tell that my swing was going in the right direction, he said. So results aside, it felt good today.
And so did the Rays with their offensive catalyst once again in their midst.
I think everybody else is able to relax a bit and gain some confidence, right fielder Matt Joyce said. And once youre able to do that, things start rolling. Weve had a great series and weve got to figure out a way to keep it going. But right now I think were happy with the way weve been swinging.
Theyre certainly pleased with the way theyve been pitching. In 25 games since the All-Star break, Rays pitchers lead the majors in team ERA (2.22), strikeouts (250) and opponents batting average (.194). In addition, Tampa Bays bullpen leads the majors in that span with a 1.40 ERA. All told, the combined staff has only allowed 10 runs over the last eight games, not to mention one run or less in 10 of their past 15.
Leading the way Thursday was Moore. He got off to a shaky start in the first inning with a run-producing balk and struggled with his command. But he settled down and limited the Jays to two hits over six innings with six strikeouts, improving to 9-7 with an ERA of 3.73. Not bad for a kid who started the season at 1-5.
If you remember in the past, he might start out poorly and then it would get even worse, Maddon said. This started out poorly and got better. So apparently hes able to control his emotions and I like that.
Moore concurred that he was able to regain his composure, a positive step in his development.
The first inning was a zoo, he said. I think I remember looking up. I had like 12 pitches and felt in control, and before I know it, Im a balk later and some stressful pitches. The second inning, I think I calmed down enough just to make myself feel relaxed and take things simple at times.
Another positive sign for the Rays is an noticeable improvement in the uncharacteristically inconsistent defense this season, which committed 71 errors in 86 games before the All-Star break. Theyve now gone errorless in their past eight games, their longest streak since going nine games July 29-Aug. 6, 2011. And theyre closing in on the franchise record of 10.
The better efforts across the board have revived the Rays with a third-place record of 59-52 in the AL East, a game behind the Orioles and six in back of the Yankees. But theyre now only one game behind Oakland and Baltimore (each 60-51) in the race for a Wild Card spot.
With eight victories in their last 11 outings, Tampa Bay heads north with some valuable momentum for a weekend series against the struggling Minnesota Twins, fourth in the AL Central at 49-62. From there, they travel to Seattle for three games against the Mariners, last in the West at 51-62, and finish with four in Anaheim against the Angels, third in the West at 59-53.
Jeremy Hellickson (6-7. 3.43 ERA) starts Friday night at 8:10 against Cole De Vries (2-2, 3.81), with Saturdays 7:10 p.m. matchup pitting David Price (14-4, 2.49) against Nick Blackburn (4-7, 7.42) and Sundays 2:10 p.m. game featuring James Shields (10-7, 4.08) and Scott Diamond (10-5, 2.91).
The Rays can take heart from their recent road swing, which took them through Baltimore, Anaheim and Oakland and produced six wins in nine games, including three shutouts. They also may regain the services during the trip of power-hitter Luke Scott, who has been on the DL with an oblique strain and starts a rehab assignment Friday with Class-A Charlotte.
The West Coast is always a little bit of an adjustment, said left fielder Sam Fuld, hitting .303 since his return from the DL during that trip. But we played pretty well on our last trip to California. To play that well on our first trip gives us a little confidence.
But the big boost came this week with the return of a player who has been sorely missed and who showed everyone just how much the past three days.