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Fennelly: Rays find wins, maybe identity, during homestand

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Published:   |   Updated: April 25, 2013 at 10:53 AM

ST. PETERSBURG It’s probably just as well the Rays are leaving town. What was next, anyway, a bouncy house and snow cones?

Carnival Joe and his baseball team have hit the road, this time with more of a sense of normalcy, even allowing for the DJ, the magician, the cockatoo and Wednesday’s clubhouse surprise: penguins.

“I was hoping it was going to be a monkey,” Rays outfielder Matt Joyce said.

Yes, it was just another night at the ballpark. Watch where you step.

At least the Rays themselves are beginning to look downright normal. The Formula is at work. They won five of six on the homestand, taking two of three from those staid, gray, no pets allowed Yankees. Wednesday, they got more fabulously tenacious pitching from Alex Cobb, a two-run double from Ben Zobrist and yet another solo homer, this one from Sean Rodriguez, in a 3-0 victory on, wait for it, Joe Maddon Gnome Night.

And away they go for 10 games. Let’s see how this one goes.

Maybe that 2-7 road trip was a wake-up call. No sooner had the Rays returned then they held a closed-door, players-only meeting — and Maddon began channeling his inner Gong Show.

It was growing slightly embarrassing, like when Maddon wore a talking cockatoo on his shoulder. Even Rays players who love playing for the skip smiled as if Joe was that tipsy uncle who tells too many jokes at the Thanksgiving table. In other news, after the Rays lost Tuesday, the cockatoo reportedly asked Maddon why he’d lifted Price in the ninth.

But how do you rip penguins? They’re adorable. They’re like three gym credits short of being koala bears.

Back to the Rays, who are beginning to look like the show they imagined in spring training — only with Matt Moore (4-0, 1.04 ERA) starring as Price, and Cobb (3-1) starring as James Shields. It’s good pitching, like always, better defense and barely enough hitting to win. It’s Wednesday, making three runs look like 20.

“We’re still finding out what our identity as a team is,” Zobrist said. “I think we know that we can pitch this way, consistently, and hitting — we want to hit as well as we have on this homestand.”

It turns out they were going to hit more than four home runs this season, and Escobar wasn’t going to finish up at .105 after all, and a lot of other stuff like that. The Rays were still only hitting .229 as a team entering Wednesday, fourth worst in the majors, with 76 runs, tied for next to last in the American League. But they’ve done enough to be 10-11 this season, enough to hang in.

The pitching hasn’t been exactly what it was last season, but how could it be?

It’s still enough to make a show.

Cobb made one Wednesday. This guy was underrated after he replaced the injured Jeff Niemann last season, and so far he’s doing an even better job at replacing the traded Shields, going deep into games — oh, and winning them.

Here’s the stunner, the worrying point, the abnormality: Cy Young just Cy whiffed in April. Price hasn’t won all month, to go with a 5.52 ERA. I don’t think it helped the cause when Maddon relieved Price in the ninth inning Tuesday night with a man on in a 2-2 game. Why not let him go for it and get his season and confidence back on track.

“Because it’s about the Rays first; it’s never about the guy,” Maddon said.

Toward that end, Maddon gave Cobb the hook with a runner on and one out in the ninth. I’d hate to think this was Maddon trying to prove a point. I’m going to say it wasn’t — with a save to Fernando Rodney.

Feel the Gnome.

Rays First is showing signs of life and they assume Price will do the same, the thinking being: If you have to have one winless starter, wouldn’t you want it to be your Cy Young winner, wouldn’t it stand to reason that he’s going to get hot and win some games, if not another award?

“You’ve got to see how things are going to fit together,” Zobrist said. “You don’t really know in spring training how it’s going to look until you hit the regular season and you start playing together and both win and lose together.”

Now it’s the second long trip, 10 games, Chicago, Kansas City, and lastly Denver — penguin weather. April will turn to May before the Rays return.

And then they bring in the monkey.

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