ST. PETERSBURG - During small-ball batting practice Thursday afternoon, Tampa Bay's Matt Joyce popped a ball up that struck the front bar across the top of the batting cage and sailed about 30 feet where it dropped back into the chute of the machine firing balls toward home plate.
Think that was a nifty trick? How about this?
The Rays got a hit with a runner in scoring position Thursday night. Just one, but it was enough to bring the Rays dormant offense to life.
They also scored a runner from third base with less than two outs, so there were all kinds of magic inside Tropicana Field as the Rays beat the Astros 5-0 in front of 10,880 for their fifth win in their last eight games.
It was the eighth shutout of the season for the Rays pitching staff, and it began with Chris Archer and continued with an offense that finally got a big hit.
“We had plenty of opportunities early,” manager Joe Maddon said. “It finally kicked in late.”
Archer rebounded from a three-inning outing Saturday in Houston and kept the Astros in check with one of the better nights this season for his slider and his mid-90s fastball that he threw for strikes. He pitched 6 2/3 innings of three-hit ball and had eight strikeouts before turning the game over to the bullpen.
By then the pitching staff had a lead to protect thanks to Yunel Escobar's RBI single in the fourth inning that drove home James Loney and snapped the team-wide 0-for-16 with runners in scoring position.
Ryan Hanigan followed and executed the first-and-third bunt play that scored Brandon Guyer to give the Rays a 2-0 lead.
“It's nice to get a hit and drive in that one like he did, and it's nice to manufacture one like we did,” Hanigan said.
The inning was set up when Astros second baseman Jose Altuve made a throwing error on what could have been a double-play grounder by Guyer.
“It was awesome to see us be on the other end of that,” Archer said. “A lot of times teams have been capitalizing on mistake that we make. The one mistake they make we were able to make the most of it.”
And just so they wouldn't be taxed, the Rays tacked on three runs in the seventh inning off reliever Paul Clemens.
Hanigan singled to start the inning. Two outs later Kevin Kiermaier sent his fourth home run of the season into the right field seats.
Evan Longoria followed with a long home run on the next pitch that reached the tarp in left field to make it a 5-0 game.
It was the fourth time this season the Rays hit back-to-back home runs and the second time this week. Sean Rodriguez and Jennings did it Monday against the Orioles, which was also the last time the Rays won.
The Rays offense finally synched-up with a solid pitching performance, though it took a few innings for the bats to catch up.
The Rays had runners at first and third with no outs in the first inning after Desmond Jennings singled and crossed to third on an errant pickoff throw by Houston starter Collin McHugh.
McHugh then walked Ben Zobrist.
“My thought there is, 'Let's go,' ” Maddon said.
Kiermaier struck out swinging, Longoria struck out looking and Loney grounded back to McHugh.
The Rays put the first two runners on in the third inning when Hanigan and Jennings drew walks.
But Zobrist popped up to third base, Kiermaier looked at a called third strike and Longoria lined out to third base.
Then came the fourth and the elusive big hit.
Escobar singled home Loney, and Guyer crossed from first to third base to set up Hanigan's bunt.
“It's truly about competing, I believe,” Maddon said about hitting with runners in scoring position. “I've mention this to the guys in the past – in that particular moment it's no different than Little League, high school, junior college, college, minor leagues, it's just a competitive moment where you're not going to be denied. That's truly what's behind or the essence with really good hitting with runners in scoring position. It's that competitive moment, and we just have to out-compete the other side at that point.”
The Rays were just 1-for-10 with RISP and stranded eight base runners, but with the way Archer pitched and the shutdown job by relievers Brad Boxberger, Joel Peralta and Grant Balfour (three batters, three strikeouts in the ninth), Escobar's hit was enough.
“It always helps when you can get that lead and put the pressure on them,” Kiermaier said. “That kind of got us rolling there. Later in the game, more base runners got on and we started producing late. It'd be nice to do this earlier to take the pressure off us a little bit, but I guess it was a good team win. Our pitching staff did great and we put more runs on the board than them, and that's what it's all about.”