Receiving a boost from the long-awaited return of Evan Longoria, the Tampa Bay Rays continued their dominance of the Toronto Blue Jays during this week's 3 game sweep at Tropicana Field. With a 3 for 5 performance from the All-Star 3rd baseman, the Rays finished the job with a 7-1 victory on Thursday, August 9.
With hopes of keeping pace in the tightening wildcard race, the sweep was just what the playoff doctor ordered. Following consecutive shutout losses over the weekend to the wildcard-leading Baltimore Orioles, this was a surprising and welcomed reversal.
Throughout the series, the Rays' starting pitching remained dominant, as it has looked for the past month. On Thursday afternoon, Matt Moore earned his 9th win of 2012 behind a 6 inning performance that yielded just 1 run and 2 hits. After a slow start to the season, Moore has begun to meet expectations. The hard-throwing lefty has avoided the long ball and has a chance to give the club consecutive Rookie-of-the-Year honors.
The Rays' bullpen, however, surprisingly remains equally effective. With 3 more shutout innings to seal victory from Kyle Farnsworth, J.P. Howell, and Wade Davis, the Rays' pen allowed only 1 run during the series. The club's 12 man staff is firing on all cylinders and these pitchers are determined to ensure the team makes a playoff run once again.
While their disappointing offense has been rightfully criticized throughout the season, Tampa Bay's bats gradually awoke against Toronto's sub-par pitching. Beginning with a 3 run second inning led by catcher Jose Lobatan's 2 RBI single, the offense impressively notched 13 hits during Thursday's contest.
No factor is more instrumental to this awakening than Evan Longoria's return to the cleanup spot. Still unable to play the field, Longo served as designated hitter in all 3 games and batted 4 for 12 with 3 RBI. Though all will not be right until he returns to 3rd base, the 26 year-old's presence was indeed the boost for which Rays' fans longed.
With Longo limited to DH and Luke Scott rehabbing a bad back, manager Joe Maddon continues to tweak his lineup and player positioning. On Thursday, Ben Zobrist played shortstop for the first time since 2009. Since Elliot Johnson has struggled of late and Sean Rodriguez has displayed little all season, we could see this move again.
Additionally, the positioning allowed newly acquired Ryan Roberts to man 2nd base. Roberts went 1 for 3 with an RBI on Thursday and posted hits in consecutive games for the first time with the Rays.
Scoring 14 runs in the 3 games, Tampa Bay mercifully erases the memory of netting just 2 runs in a trio of frustrating contests against Baltimore over the weekend. While not expecting the team to morph into an offensive juggernaut, fans must remain hopeful that Longoria's return will benefit the lineup from top to bottom.
In many ways, no sport proves streakier than baseball and often for unexplainable reasons. Perhaps the absence of Longo's big bat for 3 months held everyone back? Perhaps his addition forces a pitcher to work differently all night? Regardless, supporters of the Rays will gladly take the results.
Just 1/2 game from a wildcard spot, Tampa Bay hits the road for a critical 10 day, 10 game trip. Before heading west next week, the Rays first oppose the Minnesota Twins and must make hay against the A.L.'s 2nd worst team.
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