ST. PETERSBURG — This isn't absolutely the best run of pitching the Rays have ever had, the fifth-inning home run Blake Snell allowed to Ryan O'Hearn snapping their latest scoreless streak at 27 innings, tying the franchise record set in the 2013 playoff season.
But it sure has been darn good.
And quite surprising.
Snell added to the impressive totals in Tuesday's 4-1 victory that pushed the Rays to a season-high-tying four games over .500 at 65-61. The All-Star worked six strong innings, striking out 11 in throwing 101 pitches and earning his 15th win.
"It felt good,'' Snell said. "It felt good to get deep into a game.''
But how are they doing this overall, with only two traditional starters, with their use of relievers to open games and converted starters to work multiple innings in relief, and with a staff of good arms but not well-known names?
They have a majors-best 1.89 ERA over their past 11 games, a 3.36 ERA that is second best (and lowest in the AL) since the mid-May advent of the opener, and a 3.72 ERA overall that is pushing top five. Plus, a 26-inning scoreless streak in June, and 11 shutouts total.
"That's awesome,'' manager Kevin Cash said. "And we're doing it with a bunch of young pitchers. The guys that we're asking to do it, it's a huge team effort, starter effort, 'pen effort, opener effort. That's pretty rewarding.''
I don't have the best answer,'' Cash said. "We're getting guys that are getting acclimated and being comfortable in what we're asking them to do.
"There was a transition there a few months ago, but now we're pretty convinced the buy-in is where it needs to be.''
The Rays evolved due to injuries, from planning on using relievers to cover multiple innings one game a week to three and, briefly, four. Then when they debuted the use of the opener, with relievers starting the game and getting the first three-six outs, the key talking point was buy-in.
Cash repeatedly praised the pitchers for going along with the unorthodox plan, not being concerned or impacted by when and how they were being used, nor being selfish about any impact it could have on their stats — or their future earnings.
"I think everybody is buying in,'' veteran reliever Sergio Romo said. "I know it's kind of a cliche, you've got to buy in. But I think everybody being unselfish.''
Then again, and this wasn't coincidental, the Rays had assembled a group that really wasn't in position to complain, rookies who either had limited time in the majors last year or were debuting.
Would Ryan Yarbrough prefer to be back at Triple A starting or working as a multi-inning reliever for the Rays posting an impressive 12-5, 3.84 record?
Would Ryne Stanek rather be racking up saves for Triple-A Durham or splitting time doing one-two innings stints as the opener (while facing many of the toughest hitters) and working in a setup role?
"Obviously you'd rather be here if you can,'' Stanek said. "Nobody is in a position to (be selfish). Everybody is just like stoked to be pitching and being excited to have their name called when it gets called.''
Once the pitchers bought into the plan, they had to prove — most importantly, in some cases, to themselves — they could do the job, no matter what it was.
"The guys have begun to establish maybe even a little more confidence in themselves at this level,'' pitching coach Kyle Snyder said.
"Believing they belong, I think as much as anything else. Belief is a huge factor. Timelines vary based off that belief, but success typically translates into more confidence, and I think that's more or less the recipe we've seen unfold here the past couple weeks.''
There are some more tangible factors as well, Snyder said.
The defense behind the pitchers has been very dependable of late. New catcher Michael Perez "has been tremendous" since coming over July 25 from Arizona. Together, the Rays have done a better job of controlling counts and not ceding advantages to the hitters.
And there is the matter of ability.
"These guys, when it comes to service time, there's only a couple guys that have over a year, and they're pitching like they have five or six years already,'' Romo said.
"It's impressive they've accumulated so much talent here the way they have, and I think it's just really starting to show. … It's a great opportunity they're giving these young guys to show us who they are, to show us what they've got. It ain't easy to pitch at this level, and the stuff they've got, these kids are showing they can be dominant.''
The Rays went into Tuesday's game off back-to-back shutouts and with 23 straight zeroes. Snell allowed a leadoff double but nothing else of consequence until the homer in the fifth, improving to 15-5, 2.07. It was his 13th straight home start of allowing one or no earned runs, the most since records were kept in 1913.
"Another really well-pitched game,'' Cash said. "Blake obviously did his thing and got his punchouts. … Another dominant performance on his part.''