From the time the Rays left Tropicana Field after their Opening Series sweep of the Yankees until the time they left Fenway Park after their series loss to the Red Sox, something was off for the Rays every single night. They went just 2-5 versus the Tigers and Red Sox as their both offense and pitching struggled, winning only James Shields‘ starts. They then lost the opening game of their series with the Blue Jays at Rogers Centre. But something clicked in the second game of the series on Wednesday night as the offense clicked and David Price battled to turn in a good outing as the Rays won 12-2. The Rays’ progress continued on Thursday night as they emerged victorious over Blue Jays 9-4 to clinch their first series win since the season’s first series.
The Rays jumped out to an early lead against Blue Jays started Henderson Alvarez, stringing together a single by Ben Zobrist, a walk to Carlos Pena, and an opposite field single by Evan Longoria to take a 1-0 lead before Luke Scott grounded into a double play to end the inning. But Jeremy Hellickson gave the lead right back in the bottom of the inning, allowing a Yunel Escobar single to begin the game and a subsequent Adam Lind double. The Rays offense got going again in the second inning. Matt Joyce was hit by a pitch to begin the inning, and advanced to 2nd base on a Jeff Keppinger groundball before Jose Molina struck out. Sean Rodriguez then hit a line drive that landed in front of Jose Bautista in right field. Joyce attempted to score and Bautista came up throwing. Bautista’s throw was an absolute laser that took a bad hop in front of J.P. Arencibia, allowing Joyce to score, but then the ball bounced up into the left non-throwing shoulder of Alvarez backing up the play, causing him to go down to the ground, and then the ball bounced into the stands. Alvarez was checked out by the Jays trainer but was fine and remained in the game. Rodriguez ended up on 3rd on the play and scored on a Desmond Jennings single to extend the Rays’ lead to 3-1.
Hellickson stranded a runner in the 2nd, J.P. Arencibia, who reached on a single to break out of a 2 for 32 slide, before working around a walk and yet another Evan Longoria error in the 3rd. But things came apart a little bit in the 4th. With Hellickson not quite in a rhythm but pitching pretty well, Colby Rasmus changed the momentum with a 1-out bunt single. Hellickson then left a fastball too far up to J.P. Arencibia and he drilled an opposite-field RBI double and scored on a Sean Rodriguez throwing error (I still don’t completely trust him defensively at shortstop) to tie the game before Hellickson got Kelly Johnson and Jose Bautista to escape further trouble. But the momentum in the game shifted right back.
Desmond Jennings stepped up to the plate with 1 out having a hit in his previous at-bat but just 2 doubles and no other extra-base hits in 56 plate appearances. But when Alvarez left a first-pitch fastball to Jennings up, Jennings drilled it into the left field seats for his first home run of the year to give the Rays’ a 4-3 lead. Ben Zobrist followed with a walk, and two batters later, Evan Longoria drilled a 3-2 fastball left too high for a 2-run blast to dead center to extend the lead to 6-3. It was Longoria’s first home run since Opening Day.
Hellickson worked around an Edwin Encarnacion double in the bottom of the 5th and got two quick outs in the 6th before walking Yunel Escobar to end his outing. Getting the final out of the inning proved to be a difficult task as Jake McGee and Burke Badenhop both failed to do so, allowing a single and walk respectively, before J.P. Howell allowed a line drive to Adam Lind that, lucky for him and the Rays, landed right in Carlos Pena’s glove. Howell pitched a nice 7th inning, though, striking out 2 while working around a single, and after the Rays stranded Elliot Johnson, who walked a stole a base, in the top of the 8th, Joel Peralta tossed a 1-2-3 bottom of the inning, forcing two groundball outs. The Rays rewarded the great performances of Hellickson, Howell, and Peralta by putting the game away in the top of the 9th.
Desmond Jennings singled to begin the 9th and advanced to 2nd on a Zobrist groundball. Jennings then was credited with a steal of third as he read correctly that a Jason Frasor pitch was going to bounce before it even made to the plate and belatedly sprinted to the 3rd. Pena walked before Evan Longoria drilled his second extra-base hit of the night, a double, to score Jennings and advance Pena to 3rd. Luke Scott followed with another double to make the score of the game 9-3 as both Pena and Longoria scored. Fernando Rodney had warmed up when the game was a save situation and struggled for the first time all year with that the case, but after getting into a bases-loaded, 1 out jam, Rodney forced Brett Lawrie to ground out on a tag play at first, scoring a run, before forcing Colby Rasmus to ground out to end the game as the Rays won 9-4.
Hellickson (2-0) was the winner in the game, going 5.2 innings and allowing 3 runs, 2 earned, on 6 hits, striking out 4 while walking 3. 65 of his 106 pitches were strikes and 9 of his 13 non-strikeout outs were on groundballs, but he could not put away hitters and his defense didn’t help him, leading to his elevated pitch count. According to Brooks Baseball, Hellickson used some variation of his fastball for over two-thirds of his pitches but could not command it well, with his cutter looking especially bad, and his changeup was inconsistent on the night while he used his curveball almost exclusively against Jose Bautista with mild success. Hellickson showed nice movement on his curve at times and he maybe should have used it a few more times than he did, but he was able to battle the struggles he had with his bread and butter, his fastball and changeup, to turn in a good enough outing to win the game. Alvarez (0-1) took the loss, allowing 6 runs on 6 hits in 6.1 innings.
The Rays also got encouraging relief outings from Howell and Joel Peralta, a couple who relievers who struggled mightily to begin the year. If those two can get going, the Rays could have themselves a solid bullpen, with hopefully Jake McGee and Burke Badenhop following suit as well.
A couple of Rays had huge days at the plate as Desmond Jennings went 3 for 5 with a homer, a stolen base, 2 RBI, and 2 runs scored, while Evan Longoria went 3 for 4 with a homer, a double, 4 RBI, and also 2 runs scored. Jennings and Elliot Johnson each swiped a base to double the Rays’ stolen base total on the year from 2 to 4. Especially with B.J. Upton coming back, expect the Rays’ stolen base total to skyrocket even as their lineup hits well.
The Rays got every facet of their game working right on Thursday night, getting a gutsy outing by Hellickson, nice relief work, great hitting by Jennings and Longoria, and also getting back to Joe Maddon’s brand of baseball with 2 stolen bases. The Rays figured something out these last two games in Toronto and hopefully it’s just the start of a great run. The Rays, with their record currently standing at 7-6, go back home to start a weekend series with the Minnesota Twins beginning on Friday night. Matt Moore takes the hill for his first Tropicana Field start hoping to rebound from a poor start at Fenway and will face off against Twins rookie Liam Hendriks.