Outstanding pitching has been the theme of the second half for the Tampa Bay Rays, but it was the offense that helped them avoid a season-high fifth straight loss.
Matt Moore has generally received a nice boost from the Rays’ bats - even though he’s rarely needed it of late.
Moore has allowed seven runs in his last six starts, and he’ll try to win a fifth straight decision Thursday night when visiting Tampa Bay opens this four-game set looking to continue its recent dominance of the Toronto Blue Jays.
The Rays (71-59) posted a 1.70 ERA from July 28-Aug. 23, sparking a 19-6 run that catapulted them from 3 1/2 games out of the AL’s second wild-card position to a 2 1/2-game edge for the top spot.
Tampa Bay totaled 11 runs and fell back out of playoff position during a four-game skid, but the offense got going again Wednesday. Evan Longoria hit a two-run homer in the first inning - one of his two blasts - and B.J. Upton added a three-run shot in the second en route to an 8-4 win that pulled the Rays within one-half game of Baltimore for the second wild-card spot.
“We knew we had to jump out fast,” Upton said. “We did that and kind of kept our foot down after that.”
The Rays improved to 58-10 when they score at least four runs, and they’ve given Moore (10-7, 2.89 ERA) a team-high 5.58 runs of support per nine innings.
Moore gave up three runs in 6 1-3 innings Friday against Oakland, leaving without a decision in a 5-4 loss. The rookie left-hander was 4-0 with a 1.16 ERA in his previous five starts.
“I didn’t use my changeup as much as I had been,” Moore said. “It was more breaking ball and fastball. … It was a little bit tougher to keep them off balance.”
Tampa Bay has certainly kept Toronto (58-71) guessing at the plate in 2012. The Rays have won five straight and nine of the last 10 in the season series, posting a 2.05 ERA in that stretch.
Moore held the Blue Jays to one run and two hits over six innings in a 7-1 home win Aug. 9 after lasting only four innings in his first career outing at Toronto in May. This will be his first start at Rogers Centre.
The Jays are 14-22 against left-handed starters - only Cleveland is worse among AL clubs - but didn’t have much trouble against one of the game’s best Wednesday. Yunel Escobar went 4 for 5 with a homer and five RBIs as Toronto scored five runs off the Yankees’ CC Sabathia in an 8-5 win.
By taking two of three, the Blue Jays won their first series since going 2-1 against Detroit from July 27-29.
“Anything positive that happens to the club is going to be welcomed right now,” Escobar told the team’s official website through interpreter Jose Bautista. “Winning a series on the road against the Yankees is something that’s definitely positive, and I hope it can bring up the team morale a little bit.”
Carlos Villanueva (6-4, 3.30) will try to end August on a positive note after going 0-4 with a 4.06 ERA in five starts this month. His worst outing came Friday at Baltimore, where he allowed four runs over 5 2-3 innings in a 6-4 loss.
Villanueva gave up three runs in six innings in St. Petersburg earlier this month to lower his ERA to 11.93 in seven games - two starts - versus Tampa Bay.
Ben Zobrist has three hits in six at-bats against Villanueva - all homers.