ST. PETERSBURG – Now that’s more like it.
That was the prevailing sentiment on Sunday afternoon, after the Rays completed a 5-2 victory against the Houston Astros before a sparse Family Fun Day crowd of 13,841 at Tropicana Field.
Left-hander Erik Bedard worked 51⁄3 strong innings — the fifth consecutive effective outing by a Rays starter, a streak almost taken for granted in previous seasons — and four relievers finished up with scoreless efforts. Meanwhile, the Rays have suddenly discovered some clutch offense, batting .429 (9-for-21) with runners in scoring position over the last two games.
“We won and that’s the bottom line,” Rays third baseman Evan Longoria said. “At this point, that’s all I care about.”
After a 1-14 stretch, the Rays have won seven of their last 11 games. They remain in the American League East cellar, but have cut their deficit from 15 games back of the leader to 11 during the 11-game stretch.
That’s the big picture.
Sunday afternoon was time to be satisfied with some details.
“Everybody (among starting pitchers) that has gone out there the past two weeks has given us a great opportunity to win,” Longoria said. “That has been pretty consistent for us over the recent history. We lean so heavily on them (starting pitchers) that maybe it caught up with us a little bit.
“Offensively, we weren’t doing enough. We want to return the favor offensively, rewarding those guys and their great outings. Hopefully it continues and we can get on a good little roll here.”
Bedard established the momentum with a 108-pitch effort that included eight strikeouts and just one walk. Particularly, Bedard was effective throwing his curveball for strikes.
“He has an outstanding curveball,” Rays manager Joe Maddon said. “It’s not OK. It’s not good. It’s not above average. It’s well above average. It’s excellent. He needs to use it. When he does, he’s an entirely different pitcher.”
When Bedard found trouble in the sixth inning, allowing consecutive one-out singles to Chris Carter and Jesus Guzman, Maddon turned to Juan Carlos Oviedo, who escaped with a pair of harmless outs, even after his wild pitch put both runners in scoring position.
Oviedo’s appearance started off the Rays’ new-look, mix-and-match bullpen. Former closer Grant Balfour worked a scoreless seventh, Jake McGee pitched the eighth and Joel Peralta finished with a save in the ninth.
“I came here to pitch and if it’s the fifth, sixth or seventh, I don’t really care,” Oviedo said through an interpreter. “I’m just here to work.”
Maddon’s approach might actually be working after the Rays endured a stretch when the bullpen suffered several implosions.
Some semblance of offense helps the cause even more.
Longoria went 3-for-4, including a first-inning RBI single. Shortstop Yunel Escobar had a one-out, two-run single in the sixth, which put the Rays ahead to stay.
In the eighth, the Rays got an insurance run when Brandon Guyer and Longoria delivered back-to-back singles. They advanced on a bunt by Kevin Kiermaier. Guyer hustled to score from third on Sean Rodriguez’s medium fly ball to left.
“When you’re hitting the baseball, its looks better,” Maddon said. “When they’re not (hitting), people are going to say, ‘They’re not into it. There’s no energy. Regardless of whether you’re in Tampa Bay or Tokyo, it’s going to be the same gig.
“You’ve got to block out the noise. Primarily, (the problem) has been hitting with runners in scoring position. When we get better at that, (people will say) ‘These guys are full of energy. Why didn’t they look like that earlier?’ ”
If the run-scoring prowess continues, Maddon said the Rays will look like a different team.
“It has been an awkward year,” Maddon said. “There has been a lot stuff that doesn’t make sense. Primarily, we need to pushing on the offensive side, do everything else we normally do (pitching and defense) and we’ll be fine.”