For the second consecutive series, the Tampa Bay Rays swept their opponent and the surging team has now captured 6 games in a row. With a 7-3 triumph in 10 innings over the Minnesota Twins on Sunday, August 12, the Rays not only grabbed the lead for the American League wildcard, but tantalizingly moved within 5 games of 1st place in the East.
After a quiet contest where neither side scored past the 5th inning, the Rays sent 9 batters to the plate upon the commencement of extra-innings. Scoring 4 runs in a 10th inning outburst to break the deadlock, Sunday also provided reliever Kyle Farnsworth with his first win of the season. No longer the closer due to surprising brilliance from Fernando Rodney, the veteran pitched a scoreless 9th and continues to find his role in a stellar bullpen.
As starter James Shields gave way following a respectable 7 inning, 2 earned run performance, 4 relievers again slammed the door on an opponent, as this group has seemingly done all summer. While Farnsworth earned victory on Sunday, the previous 5 games were won by starting pitchers -- a testament to the bullpen's all-important ability to hold leads late in games.
Yet, the lasting impression from the 6 game winning steak must be the improved hitting of a long-criticized lineup. Just a week ago, considerable frustration occupied the thoughts of most Tampa Bay fans. As injuries piled up, woes at the plate seemed insurmountable, especially after back-to-back home shutouts by the Baltimore Orioles. Doubts grew about the ability to remain in playoff contention.
Aided by the parity of modern baseball, winning 6 of 6 games surely changes attitudes quickly.
Not only have the Rays triumphed behind strong pitching, but the team has mercifully come alive at the plate. In 5 of the last 6 contests, Tampa Bay has netted at least 4 runs. Furthermore, in each of the past 4 games, the squad has posted at least 11 hits. If the lineup had displayed such consistency all year, the Rays would undoubtedly enjoy the best record in baseball.
Not coincidentally, the timing of this winning streak precisely coincides with the return of Evan Longoria. The club's All-Star 3rd baseman missed 85 games since May 1 before returning for these 6 match-ups. While Longo has hit a respectable 6 for 23 with 4 RBI, added value comes in restoring order to a turbulent lineup by re-assuming the cleanup spot and forcing pitchers to work differently.
For example, in Sunday's game, Longoria was intentionally walked in the deciding 10th inning to load the bases, which soon enabled the winning run to score on a ground-out.
The Rays extend their road trip on Monday with a 10:10 p.m. game in Seattle. Like Toronto and Minnesota before them, the Mariners sit well back of the playoff race. As Tampa Bay sends an improving Alex Cobb to the mound, it must continue to take advantage of such winnable games behind a bolstered offense.
Seattle meanwhile counters with Blake Beavan, who looked strong in an 8 inning victory over the Rays last month. Facing the 2nd year hurler just 3 weeks later will serve as a valuable test to measure the team's progress. If the Rays continue to pass, perhaps that familiar late-season magic can return in time to make another run at a division title.
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