Martin Fennelly Columns
Yankees again help Rays look more familiar
ST. PETERSBURG - They bob, they weave. They're the 2012 Rays, any which way they can. "We've looked like ourselves these two games," center fielder B.J. Upton said. "We've been a group in the past that's found a way. These last two days, we found a way." Monday night, on the edge of gory, ice cold, they beat the red hot, first-place Yankees. It took a pinch hit from a guy 0-for-24 in his most recent pinch-hit tries (Brooks Conrad) and an error by Yankees first baseman Mark Teixeira. Tuesday, they spotted the Yankees another 2-0 lead in the first, let it go to 3-0 … then beat New York for the ninth straight time at the Tropicana Field, 7-4, and, oh, by the way, handing the loss to Ivan Nova, who had never lost to the Rays and who was 12-0 over his last his last 16 road starts going back to June 2011.This time around, it took three more errors and unearned runs from New York. It took a two-run homer from Sean Rodriguez, a moribund 17 for his previous 101 at-bats (.168). And it took a two-run single from Jeff Keppinger, lately the Rays' best right-handed hitter in Evan Longoria's absence. Plus there was old Rays go-for-it magic: great defense to get Robinson Cano at the plate in the sixth, Ben Zobrist to Rodriguez to Jose Molina, and then go-for-it aggressiveness as Upton and Desmond Jennings worked a double steal in the seventh, Jennings stealing home for insurance. It all led to a second consecutive bow and arrow moment for Fernando Rodney, the new Robin Hood, who takes from the Yankees, and gives to the Rays. "We've answered the call here the last two days," Upton said. And all it took was the Yankees. "Familiar opponent," Rodriguez said. Nearly everything about the Rays that is not named Price or Rodney or comes out of the bullpen has been a tick off most of the season, never quite all there, at the plate, in the field, from injuries, guys out of position, guys who shouldn't be in the majors, all that good stuff. Nothing points to that more than Tuesday's winning pitcher James Shields, who gave up another 10 hits Tuesday after giving a career-high 14 in his last start. He put himself down 3-0, then 4-3, but got his eighth win. We've been wondering what it would be like if Shields regained his 2011 form and joined Price, who is back on the 2010 Cy Young beam. We're still wondering. But Shields did manage to go seven innings, with a bulldog final three, helped along by that play at the plate. A big night for S-Rod, who had three hits. Someone stepped up, and that is what it's going to take, if not him, then someone else, night after night, to make up for the Hit 'Em Where They Are lineup and the defensive lapses that have plagued this season. It's a season turned all sorts of ways around, and maybe we should have known it from Opening Day. Remember when we giggled when Jeff Keppinger dug in as DH and cleanup man that first day against these very same Yankees? No one is laughing at present. Keppinger has made a difference since leaving the DL. He's the team's leading hitter at .317. "I knew he could hit when we got him," Upton said. It's fun to see him deliver." Likewise Jennings and Upton's double steal. After Jennings doubled to lead off the seventh and Upton singled for his second hit, the two exchanged looks across the infield and it was on. "Me and Dez have been waiting a while to do that for a while, because we both haven't been on base for a while," said Upton, the last Ray to make steal home on a double steal, back in 2008. "We've been itching to do it. We've been thinking about it since the last time we were both on base the same time." When was that? "Beginning of the season," Jennings said. He and Upton both laughed. On the edge of gory, they've beaten the Bombers twice. Could you ask for anything more than Price, your 11-game winner, on the mound on the Fourth with a chance to sweep the Yankees? Of course, these Rays then lose three of four in Cleveland. It's day to day with these guys until all the other guys get back. But for a couple of days at least, they've looked like their old selves.