ST. PETERSBURG – After completing a sweep of the Toronto Blue Jays Thursday afternoon, the Tampa Bay Rays are hoping to keep the tempo up as they begin a 10-game road trip tonight against the Minnesota Twins.
The Rays (59-52) are currently in the thick of the race for one of the two AL Wild Card spots, and is only a game behind Oakland (60-51) for the first spot and a half-game behind Baltimore and Detroit (each 60-52) for the second one. They open up a three-game series in Minneapolis tonight at 8:10 ET, and then head west to play the Mariners and Angels.
The Rays have won their last eight of 11 games, and are three of three since Evan Longoria has returned to the line-up after missing 85 games for a torn hamstring. Longoria looked to be back in form against the Jays, going 3-for-5 with two RBI in a 7-1 Rays win Thursday.
Teammates agree that having Longoria in the lineup makes a huge impact on the team. “Evan’s going to be an impact player whenever he plays,” said first basemen Carlos Pena, “As soon as he walks into the lineup, he makes it so much better, and you can’t quantify, really, what it means to this ball club…just his presence lifts us up.”
The team’s run production has improved since the three-time All-Star’s return, managing to put up 14 runs in three games (they only scored four runs in the previous three games). With Longoria in the lineup at Tropicana Field, the Rays are 12-1. When he bats cleanup they are 10-2.
Longoria says that despite the numbers, the most important thing to him is being there for his team. “It’s something that’s important to me – not to be the guy that everybody expects to hit every game, but to be the guy that can be looked at as a leader on the team. A guy that day in, and day out, I’m going to cheer for you and pick you up and be a good teammate.”
With the offense picking up, the stellar Rays pitching can only benefit more. Since the All-Star break, Rays pitchers have led the MLB in strikeouts (250), team ERA (2.22), and opponents’ batting average (.194).
The teams’ starting pitching has been a strong point. David Price has posted Cy Young-worthy numbers all season, and rookie Matt Moore has come to form after a slow start to his season. With a win Thursday, he improved to 3-0 with a 0.51 ERA in his last three starts – numbers more reflective of his appearances at the end of the 2011 season.
The men on the mound have not gone unnoticed by the rest of the team. “These guys have done a great job this year, and we’re fully confident behind them when they go step on the mound,” said outfielder Matt Joyce. Added outfielder Sam Fuld: “We never want to be satisfied with just putting up two, or three, or four runs, but knowing how good our pitching is gives us confidence to know we don’t need to score six runs every game.”
The bullpen leads the majors since the break with a 1.40 ERA. Relief pitcher J.P. Howell hasn’t allowed a hit in 22 days, and has a current streak of 21 scoreless innings. Closer Fernando Rodney leads the league with 34 saves, and just had his 22-inning scoreless streak broken by the Blue Jays on Wednesday.
The time appears right for the offense and defense to come together, and for the Rays to go on a run. After a successful road trip last time out (6-3), the team is hoping for more of the same. “It’s another big road trip for us,” Joyce said, “Hopefully we continue to play really good baseball. Our pitching staff is phenomenal, and now our bats are coming to life. We’re getting excited – it’s the last month and a half, and we’re going to make that push to make the playoffs.”
The Twins have struggled this season at 49-62, but are no push-over. Despite being fourth in their division, they have won their last two series. Rays coach Joe Maddon is expecting an interesting trip: “We’ve finished this home stand well. It’s always good to go out on the road on a high note. Minnesota’s been swinging the bats well. Seattle, they’ve been doing a lot better—they’ve been playing really well, and the Angels, of course, are tough.”