PITTSBURGH - The Rays' biggest power bat returned to the lineup Friday night, but the two men who have surpassed Carlos Pena as the team's most prolific homer hitters did most of the heavy lifting.
Evan Longoria and Eric Hinske pounded three-run homers to get things going early and the Rays continued the offensive roll they began in Miami, pounding the Pirates 10-5 to win despite another inefficient start by Scott Kazmir.
Tampa Bay has now scored 37 runs in its last four games, each of which has featured at least six Rays runs, to assemble its most productive stretch of the season. The Rays hadn't scored at least six runs in even three consecutive games since hitting that mark in their first four games of the year.
There has been a lot of the usual talk this week about hitting being contagious and the players starting to feed off one another - the usual explanations - but the fact that the Rays have finally gotten a break from the killer starting pitching they had been facing on almost a nightly basis surely has played a significant role in their sudden upswing.
The starters the Marlins threw at them - Scott Olsen, Ryan Tucker and Mark Hendrickson - were hardly imposing, and injury-depleted Pittsburgh rolled out 24-year-old Jimmy Barthmaier for his major-league debut.
It didn't last long. Barthmaier, who began the year in Double-A, served up the aforementioned drives to Longoria in the first and Hinske in the third, then saw one more run come home on a Dioner Navarro double before Pirates manager John Russell gave him his first big-league hook. His line: Seven hits, seven runs, seven outs.
"We obviously didn't want to give him a chance to settle in," said Longoria, sounding more the grizzled veteran every day. "It's always tough for a first-time guy - he's probably wanting to throw a little harder, maybe a little more amped up than normal. I thought his stuff was good, but he was just making too many mistakes over the plate. It's the big leagues; guys are going to hit that up here."
Barthmaier was responsible for enough runs to sink the Pirates on Friday, but the Rays' three tallies later in the game made things a bit more comfortable as Kazmir ran into some difficulties.
The left-hander was fine aside from the fourth inning, which saw the Pirates send eight men to the plate and score four times. Tampa Bay still held a relatively comfortable edge at that point, but the 31 pitches Kazmir threw in the inning ensured his evening wouldn't last too long.
He ended up going five innings, just enough to qualify for his first win since June 6 but remains frustrated by his recent inability to put hitters away with his slider or change-up, leading to high pitch counts early in games.
"I'm getting two strikes and I'm getting so many foul-offs and whatnot," Kazmir said. "I don't have my set-down pitch yet. We'll get it."
While the W went on Kazmir's ledger, the assist might as well have gone to Longoria. The third baseman had four hits and scored three times to continue his torrid road trip. He's 11-for-21 with five doubles, three homers and nine RBIs in the last four games.
"Sometimes you just find that stride," Longoria said. "I've been feeling really comfortable at the plate and really confident, and I'm just trying to ride it out. You never know when it can come and go in this game."
The rookie has pulled plenty of weight this week as the Rays have put together their best stretch of play outside the Trop, but Hinske and Carl Crawford have been right there with him. Those two also scored three times each Friday, with Crawford contributing his third homer of the trip on a solo drive to dead center in the sixth.
Having several players in the heart of the order heating up at once is usually a recipe for putting crooked numbers on the scoreboard, and the Rays have been doing it lately.
"Our pitchers have risen to the occasion and our defense has risen to the occasion," Manager Joe Maddon said. "At some point your offense has to bang a little bit, too."