ST. PETERSBURG — The Tampa Bay Rays’ offense came to life Monday night at Tropicana Field. All it took was the white-hot glare of the American League wild-card race and their rookie right fielder, who is digging his first playoff stretch.
The Rays recorded their most hits at home since the other side of the All-Star break and batted around for the first time in nearly a month. They even had hits with runners in scoring position - four of them in one inning.
Throw in a strong outing from Alex Cobb and the Rays came away with a 6-2 victory against the Texas Rangers in front of 10,724 at Tropicana Field.
The teams began the night tied atop the AL wild-card standings. The Rays now lead the Rangers, losers of seven straight and 10 of their last 11 games, by a game after taking the first of this this four-game series.
The Rays also lead the Cleveland Indians by 1 1/2 games thanks to former Ray James Shields, who pitched the Kansas City Royals past Cleveland on Monday.
“This is big,” rookie right fielder Wil Myers said after driving in three runs with another home run and a two-run, fifth inning double that broke the game open.
Myers hit capped a four-run inning that saw the Rays get four hits with runners in scoring position. Ben Zobrist, James Loney and Evan Longoria had the first three.
“I think that’s big, just for the whole team to be able to come out and do that,” Myers said. “I think that shows signs of us kind of turning it around.”
And about these big September games?
“It’s a lot of fun just to be here with a good team, a team that’s in it right now,” Myers said. “Everybody’s keeping it loose right now.”
Rays manager Joe Maddon downplayed the significance of the victory, something he does frequently. His reasoning is if Monday’s win was a “big win” than Sunday’s loss was a “big loss” and he will not acknowledge that Sunday’s defeat in Minnesota was a big loss.
But his starting pitcher thought there was some significance to Monday’s win.
“At this point of the season, with the position we’re in, every game’s going to get bigger and bigger,” Cobb said. “Yesterday was the biggest game of the season. Today’s the biggest game of the season. Tomorrow will be the biggest game of the season. I don’t think it’s unfair to say that.
“We realize the position we’re in, and we realize the performance we have to put together out there every night. I think we’re up for it, so it was nice to get the win, no matter how we got it. It was just nice to get it.”
Cobb was certainly up for it. Matched against Matt Garza, the MVP of the 2008 American League Championship Series and the only Rays pitcher to throw a no-hitter, Cobb turned in one of his best performances of the season.
He held the Rangers to a pair of runs on six hits and struck out 10.
“It was real frustrating at first. Every time they gave me the lead, I was giving it up,” Cobb said. “Then they just broke it open in the fifth inning, and it really allowed me to settle down and not have to nitpick so much. I was able to go at guys with my fastball, try to get them out early in the count and be able to go deeper into the game.
“It’s huge in the first game of the series just to try to keep the bullpen out of it. The less they see of our bullpen, especially the later-inning guys, the better it’s going to be for us throughout the rest of the series.”
Cobb struck out the first four batters he faced and retired the Rangers in order during the first three innings.
“Cobber set the whole tone. He was outstanding,” Maddon said. “You saw that in the first inning. He came out painting with a live fastball.”
Myers gave Cobb a 1-0 lead when he homered on the first pitch of the second inning, sending it on a line to right field just inside the foul pole.
The Rangers tied the score in the fourth inning with a two-out rally.
Myers put the Rays ahead 2-1 in the fourth inning when he reached on a fielder’s choice and eventually scored on a sacrifice fly by Desmond Jennings.
But Cobb allowed a pair of doubles in the fifth inning and the Rangers tied the score at 2-2.
Then came the bottom of the inning and all those hits with runners in scoring position.
The Rays batted around for the first time since Aug. 20. That was also the last time they scored four runs in an inning.
They were 6-for-11 with runners in scoring position for the night. They did extend their incredible hitless streak with the bases loaded to 16 when Myers flied out to the foot of the center field wall to end the sixth inning.
But Myers had doubled over the head of center fielder Leonys Martin to score Loney and Longoria in the fifth inning for the 6-2 lead and that was enough of a cushion for Cobb, who is 6-0 in 12 starts this season at the Trop.
When asked if he expected Myers to have this much of an impact, Maddon said, “You could see that it was in there. You could see that really special stuff was in there. To the extent that he’s making the impact I’d be lying to you if I told I did not, because we thought he could be good. We thought he could make this kind of impact. It’s not totally surprising that he’s done what he’s done.”
Longoria and Zobrist both had three hits. The Rays finished with 12 hits, their most at the Trop since July 14.
The Rays also clinched their sixth straight winning season. Only two other teams have current streaks as long - the New York Yankees (20) and St. Louis Cardinals (six).
While refusing to acknowledge the significance of the win, Maddon was pleased with the way his team rebounded from Sunday’s 6-4 loss in Minnesota when the Twins scored six times in their final two at-bats.
“Not surprising,” Maddon said. “We’ve had many tough nights this year and we normally come back relatively fast afterwards and play well. I think we’re pretty good about throwing stuff in the garbage can.”