Rays ride fast start to victory over Angels, 2nd straight series win

ANAHEIM, Calif. — A road trip that started with a horrible — or as closer Pete Fairbanks suggested, all-caps HORRIBLE — experience Friday in Colorado capped by the Rockies’ walkoff grand slam ended pretty well for the Rays on Wednesday.

Despite the dramatic loss to the Rockies and an uninspired losing effort in the first game against the Angels on Monday, the Rays came back to win both series. They went 4-2 on the country-crossing journey and headed home with a 7-6 record, the first time they’ve been over .500 since the third day of the season.

“I think that speaks volumes about our club that we can get frustrated, irritated losing that first game, but we’re able to show the ability to bounce right back,” manager Kevin Cash said.

And maybe have something to build off as they return to the comforts of Tropicana Field to host the Giants (and former ace Blake Snell) and Angels.

“Getting this series on our side is a good thing for the group,” said shortstop Jose Caballero, who had a big hand in the win. “I think it’s a good momentum the team has right now.”

A lot of what the Rays did Wednesday is part what they expect to be able to do.

Zack Littell battled through his start, overcoming an uncharacteristic lack of command as evidenced by three straight walks in the first inning. Jose Siri raced around centerfield making catches. They strung together hits, and Caballero hit his first Rays home run to grab an early lead. And the bullpen looked more like it is supposed to, with four relievers combining to get the final 14 outs.

But there were two extraordinary plays that stood out.

In the first inning, after the Rays loaded the bases on consecutive singles from Yandy Diaz (to center), Randy Arozarena and Richie Palacios (both glancing off starter Jose Soriano), a 1-0 pitch to Isaac Paredes skipped past Angels catcher Matt Thaiss, and he didn’t give immediate pursuit.

As Diaz trotted home, Arozarena made the bold decision that he could score, too, and raced around third and across the plate standing up for a 2-0 lead. Paredes followed with a sacrifice fly, and Caballero’s homer to lead off the second gave the Rays a 4-0 lead. Caballero has reached base in all 11 games he’s played with Tampa Bay.

“We had a bunch of good at-bats, squared the ball up early, and it’s always nice when you get guys on base early and you’re able to capitalize,” Cash said. “Randy just anticipating that he could score right there coming around, and then Isaac with the big sac fly to capitalize and get that third run across. Then ‘Cabby,’ who had just a tremendous series all around, with the home run.”

In the fourth, the Angels got a run in and had Zach Neto on second with two outs when Caballero made a dazzling play to keep them from drawing closer.

He went to his right, dove to grab a 101.6 mph grounder by Luis Rengifo, then fired a throw to first baseman Diaz, who stretched and snared the ball on a short hop to end the threat.

“I wanted to catch it and get rid of it as quick as possible, and then Yandy made a great pick,” Caballero said. “I’m happy for it.”

Cash was, too.

“That play (Caballero) made diving into the middle and Yandy picking it up,” he said, “that was Gold Glove plays on both ends.”

Littell said there was no reason he had “a weird day overall,” but it was obvious he wasn’t as sharp. Over the 11 innings he threw in his first two starts, he walked only two batters. Wednesday, he walked three of the first four, striking out leadoff man Rengifo before putting on Mickey Moniak, Mike Trout and Taylor Ward.

A visit by pitching coach Kyle Snyder, with a reminder to “compete in the zone,” helped, and Littell struck out the next two. But the 38 first-inning pitches he threw would impact the length of his day.

Littell credited the Angels for grinding out at-bats and making good decisions, saying 1-9 they collectively provided “probably the best at-bats I’ve ever gone through a lineup.”

His challenge was finding a way to foil them, and at least get to the fifth inning.

“It’s just getting the mindset of, like, we’ve just got to find a way to get it done,” he said. “I don’t know that there was one thing I can point to and say, ‘I just didn’t have it (Wednesday).’ Obviously, it wasn’t my best overall. And those days, you kind of just put your head down and say, ‘Let’s just figure it out,’ and one pitch at a time.

“Made some pitches when I needed to. Got some swing-and-misses when I needed to. (Catcher) Ben (Rortvedt) did a great job ... back there all day to try and steal some strikes. It’s just one of those days where you’re happy to get out of it and try and keep your guys in it.”

When Littell put two on with one out in the fifth, Cash decided that was enough. Though the bullpen has yet to have a scoreless game, Kevin Kelly, Phil Maton, Jason Adam and Fairbanks finished the job, and sent them home happy.

“To right some of our early series woes and come out on the road trip with two series wins, it’s pretty good,” Fairbanks said. “A pretty good first road trip.”

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